After the long winter break, the UEFA Champions League returns on Tuesday. Coinciding with the Round of 16 in Europe's elite club competition, surprise results in both France and Spain injected a new note of tension into the battle for league glory, although there were setbacks for the chasing pack in Italy and Germany.
In England, meanwhile, the Premier League leaders came crashing
down to earth in the FA Cup, while Liverpool were humbled at home
by lowly opposition.
As always, FIFA.com reviews the best of the weekend action across Europe.
Primera Division: Rare slip-up for Real
The crowd at the Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera witnessed the biggest shock of the weekend, although the 47,850 fans may have found it hard to believe the evidence of their own eyes. Champions and runaway leaders Real Madrid, fresh from a thumping 7-0 victory against Real Valladolid six days earlier, registered their fourth defeat of the campaign, 2-1 away to Real Betis. Coach Bernd Schuster's star-studded side would have been hoping for a far more positive dress rehearsal ahead of Tuesday's Champions League trip to AS Roma.
Barcelona supremo Frank Rijkaard was a much happier man after watching his side travel to Real Zaragossa and win 2-1, courtesy of a penalty by substitute Ronaldinho seven minutes from time. The result moved the Catalan giants to within five points of their Madrid rivals. UEFA Cup holders Sevilla continued their recent improved run of form with a 4-2 triumph away to Espanyol, but the pursuing pack suffered an attack of nerves at home. Third-placed Villarreal played out a scoreless draw with Racing Santander and Atletico Madrid in fourth fell 2-1 to Athletic Bilbao.
Top three: Real Madrid (56 points), Barcelona (51), Villarreal (43)
Bottom three: Deportivo La Coruna (24 points), Real Murcia (23), UD Levante (16)
Top scorers: Luis Fabiano (17), Diego Milito (14), Ruud van Nistelrooy (12)
Weekend stat: Sevilla are now unbeaten in four and are back in contention in the race for a European qualifying place.
Serie A: Del Piero's shock for Roma
It would appear to be business as usual in Italy at first glance, as champions and leaders Internazionale defeated AS Livorno 2-0 at home with a brace by Honduran hitman David Suazo, standing in for the rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Roberto Mancini's men remain undefeated 23 matches into the Serie A campaign, but the jockeying for position continues apace behind the runaway top dogs.
Alessandro del Piero struck the only goal of the game to hand Juventus a priceless home victory over AS Roma, taking the Turin outfit to within a point of their second-placed rivals from the capital. FIFA Club World Champions AC Milan could do no better than a scoreless draw away to Parma, but Fiorentina in fourth beat Catania 2-1 to move three points clear of the Rossoneri in the battle for a UEFA Champions League qualifying spot.
Top three: Inter (59 points), AS Roma (48), Juventus (47)
Bottom three: Parma (21 points), Reggina (18), Cagliari (15)
Top scorers: David Trezeguet (15 goals), Adrian Mutu, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (14 each)
Weekend stat: AC Milan veteran Paolo Maldini passed yet another momentous milestone against Parma, The 39-year-old came on after 68 minutes to chalk up his 1,000 competitive appearances: 861 senior games for the Rossoneri, 126 internationals for Italy, twelve outings with the Italian U-21 and one appearance for his country's Olympic team.
Ligue 1: Bordeaux reel in the leaders
Drama and tension returned to the French top flight in spades at the weekend, largely thanks to Tulio de Melo. The 23-year-old Brazilian striker rifled home for Le Mans to down serial champions and league leaders Olympique Lyon. The shock result inspired challengers Bordeaux, as the side orchestrated by playmaker Johan Micoud moved to within a point of leaders OL by rattling up a 6-0 triumph away to AS Monaco, with all the goals coming after half-time.
Olympique Marseille continued their steamroller progress towards the top with a 2-1 victory over Paris St. Germain. Eric Gerets' team are now up to fourth. PSG took the lead through Jerome Rothen, but Taye Taiwo and Mamadou Niang helped the home team come from behind. It was a sobering result for the men from the capital, who slipped from 12th to 16th in the table.
Top three: Lyon (49 points), Bordeaux (48), Nancy (41)
Bottom three: Toulouse (27 points), Sochaux (24), Metz (12)
Top scorers: Karim Benzema (16 goals), Mamadou Niang (12), David Bellion, Tulio de Melo (11 each)
Weekend stat: Bordeaux's 6-0 victory in Monaco was their biggest-ever away win in the league.
Bundesliga: Toni's treble keeps Bayern in front
Two decades have passed since Bayern Munich last lost away to Hannover 96, and coach Ottmar Hitzfeld's men were in no mood to offer any respite to the Lower Saxony outfit at the weekend. Italian Luca Toni laid on a textbook display of ruthless finishing, netting a second-half hat-trick to hand Bayern a comfortable 3-0 victory and restore the Bavarians' three-point advantage over second-placed Werder Bremen.
The men from the north had earlier applied pressure to their Munich rivals, beating relegation-threatened Cup holders 1. FC Nurnberg 2-0 as new coach Thomas von Heesen's reign got off to a poor start. The biggest losers on matchday 20 were Schalke 04. The Royal Blues, the Bundesliga's last remaining representatives in the UEFA Champions League, opened the scoring at home to bogey team VfL Wolfsburg, only for Brazilian ace Grafite to reply twice and hand the Wolves a 2-1 success.
Top three: Bayern Munich (43 points), Werder Bremen (40), Hamburger SV (37)
Bottom three: 1. FC Nurnberg, Energie Cottbus (both 16 points), MSV Duisburg (14)
Top scorers: Luca Toni (13 goals), Mladen Petric (11), Diego, Rafael van der Vaart, Mario Gomez (10 each)
Weekend stat: Germany international Mario Gomez not only helped himself to a brace in VfB Stuttgart's last-gasp 3-2 victory away to bottom club MSV Duisburg, but also scored the 500th goal of the current Bundesliga campaign. The reigning champions, marooned in tenth spot, recorded their first victory since Christmas.
FA Cup: Dismal weekend for Gunners and Reds
The big clubs in England will remember this season's FA Cup fifth round for very different reasons. Premier League leaders Arsenal crashed 4-0 away to champions Manchester United, despite Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to rest superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs. Frank Lampard scored twice as Chelsea defeated third division Huddersfield Town 3-1, but humiliation enveloped Liverpool as Steven Gerrard and Co suffered a 2-1 home defeat to second division Barnsley.
In the five-way battle for the Austrian crown, there were setbacks for Sturm Graz and Austria Vienna. The leaders from Graz suffered an unexpected 1-0 reverse away to Wacker Innsbruck and slipped all the way back to fifth, while the Viennese could do no better than a 1-1 home draw with SCR Altach. Austria in fourth are now two points adrift of champions Red Bull Salzburg, back on top of the table after a 4-0 win over SV Mattersburg. Rapid Vienna and LASK Linz occupy second and third spots.
Swiss champions FC Zurich took on Cup holders FC Basel but missed the chance to eat into the leaders' cushion at the top. The top clash ended 1-1 leaving Zurich six points behind Basel. By contrast, the Belgian title contest was thrown wide open when a Milan Jovanovic brace handed pursuers Standard Liege a 2-1 win away to leaders Club Bruges, bringing the top two level on points.