European Leagues preview
© AFP

Although the finishing line remains a long way off in Europe’s leading championships, this weekend’s games could well put both Chelsea and Dortmund firmly on the road to glory, while the likes of Brest and Mainz will be desperate not to fall out of the running after flying high since the start of the season.

In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have settled into an ominous rhythm, but Villarreal have so far managed to keep the heavyweight duo within reach and will be vying to step up their challenge. Meanwhile, in Italy, the title picture is likely to be shaken up with the top six in action among themselves.

Premier League: Chelsea looking to surge clear
Chelsea may have lost twice this season but they nonetheless boast four points more than nearest rivals Manchester United, who remain unbeaten so far. The Blues will now be hoping to extend their lead this weekend when they entertain eighth-placed Sunderland, with the Red Devils scheduled for a trip to take on Aston Villa, in tenth. Arsenal, for their part, a point and a place behind United, face an equally stiff test away against Everton, who have proved tenacious adversaries in high-profile encounters this term.

Those fixtures could play into the hands of fourth-placed Manchester City, due to welcome struggling Birmingham City in the day’s second meeting between teams from the two cities. Lastly, ninth-placed Liverpool will be keen to maintain their recovery at Stoke City, 16th, while basement club West Ham United must look to kick-start their own revival against Blackpool.

The question: Fernando Torres has plundered three goals in two matches. Will the Liverpool striker continue his return to form against Stoke?
The big game: Aston Villa-Manchester United, Saturday 12.45, Villa Park
The quote: "We’re playing well and that’s what frustrates us the most. But we’re very close. If we continue playing like we are, the wins will follow,” Avram Grant, West Ham manager.

Bundesliga: Dortmund out in front
Whatever happens during the 12th round of fixtures in Germany, leaders Dortmund will come out the other side still occupying pole position. They could even open up a seven-point advantage over closest pursuers Mainz, providing they down seventh-placed Hamburg on Friday and Mainz slump to a third consecutive loss against mid-table Hannover the following evening. Defeat for the team in second would also open the door for Bayer Leverkusen to move alongside them on points, with their mission a trip to promoted St. Pauli.

Lower down the standings, the division’s big names are still looking to find their feet this term. Bayern Munich lie ninth ahead of their tussle with sixth-placed Nuremberg in the Bavarian derby, while 2008/09 champions Wolfsburg are as low as 12th as they prepare to welcome Schalke, who finished runners-up last season but are floundering in 16th. Elsewhere, Werder Bremen can expect a hard task bouncing back from last weekend’s 6-0 loss at Stuttgart when they entertain fourth-placed Frankfurt, one of this year’s genuine surprise packages.

The question: Basement side Borussia Monchengladbach are propping up the table and have conceded at least one goal in each of their last 18 outings in all competitions. Will they finally be able to keep a clean sheet away against second-bottom Koln?
The big game: Dortmund-Hamburg, Friday 20.30, Signal Iduna Park
The quote: "Dortmund are favourites for the title. With their young players and their commitment, they remind me of the 2007 Stuttgart side,” Armin Veh, Hamburg coach and in charge of Stuttgart when they won the title in 2006/07.

Ligue 1: Brest keen to consolidate
Despite having lost at Lille last weekend, Brest remain top of the pile in France and hope to still be there after hosting 15th-placed Sochaux, opponents who have struggled away from home this season. Second-placed Rennes and fourth-placed Marseille both boast a game in hand and can leapfrog the Brittany outfit should they slip up, though for that to happen the duo will require maximum points away against Auxerre and at home to second-bottom Lens respectively.

In third, Paris Saint-Germain are also poised to exploit any stumbles as they gear up for their trip to ninth-placed Lorient, where French international striker Kevin Gameiro has rediscovered his scoring touch after coming second in the Ligue 1 scoring charts last term. As for off-colour giants Lyon and Bordeaux, positioned 11th and tenth, they will be looking for boosts on home turf against respective visitors Nice and Nancy.

The question: Sochaux have tasted defeat each time they have played away this season, but can they finally turn the tide at Ligue 1 top dogs Brest?
The big game: Auxerre-Rennes, Sunday 17.00, Stade de l'Abbe-Deschamps
The quote: "The defeat at Lille helped us. Everyone kept talking about the run we were on and everyone has been wondering why Brest are where we are. We can’t wait to put things right again against Sochaux. We’re first, which is good, but our goal is still to stay up,” Mario Licka, Brest midfielder.

La Liga: Obstacles for the top two
Spanish football fans seem ready to accept that the race for title will again come down to the duel between champions Barcelona and 2009/10 runners-up Real Madrid, with Los Merengues at the controls already and Barça close behind. The big-name duo have yet to shake off third-placed Villarreal, however, and the Yellow Submarine will be anxious to throw a spanner in the works this weekend when they visit the Camp Nou. Hoping for an upset their, of course, will be Madrid, who travel to take on a Sporting Gijon side eager to edge further clear of the relegation zone.

Down in the lower reaches, 17th-placed Hercules and Racing Santander, in 14th, will be likewise desperate to climb the standings when they welcome Real Sociedad and Espanyol respectively. Lastly, Real Zaragoza finally posted their first success of the season last weekend and will be targeting more of the same against sixth-placed Sevilla, who have collected neither a point nor a goal from their last three away trips.

The question: Who will take the honours in the relegation tussle between bottom club Malaga and 18th-placed Levante?
The big game: Barcelona-Villarreal, Saturday 22.00, Camp Nou
The quote: “I’ve won the Golden Shoe twice and I haven’t forgotten how to score goals. You just have to remain calm and keep trying. The goals will come,” Atletico Madrid striker Diego Forlan, who has gone 12 games without registering.

Serie A: Heavyweights face off
The leading six outfits are separated by just five points in Italy, but the bottleneck at the summit ought to ease this weekend after they all meet in three intriguing encounters. The most highly anticipated of all is undoubtedly the Milan derby between champions Inter, now down to fourth, and city neighbours AC Milan, who took over at the top in midweek. Two successive defeats have pulled Lazio down to second spot, yet they will be eager for a return to winning ways against the side one place below them, Napoli, for whom South American strike pair Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani have been in sparkling form.

The third big game pits Juventus against old rivals Roma, with the former positioned fifth and unbeaten in seven games while the latter are now as high as sixth and unbeaten in five. The match will have a particular resonance for the two coaches, Juve’s Luigi Delneri having spent a spell at the Roma helm and the Giallorossi’s Claudio Ranieri formerly in charge of the Bianconeri.

The question: Will Zlatan Ibrahimovic add his name to the list of players who have scored for both Milan rivals, a trail previously blazed by Ronaldo and Hernan Crespo?
The big game: Inter Milan-AC Milan, Sunday 20.45, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
The quote: "We’re still too hesitant and we’re wasting a lot of chances – me more than anyone. We need to be merciless, starting with the match against Juventus,” Marco Borriello, Roma forward.

Elsewhere
In Albania, reigning champions Dinamo Tirana hold sway in the Superliga but will be given a stern examination away against third-placed Skenderbeu Korce. A slip from the capital outfit would allow Flamurtari Vlore, one point off the top, to haul themselves to the head of the class, assuming they can post a home win against bottom side Elbasani.

Lastly, Otelul Galati are the surprise leaders in Romania and are scheduled for a home meeting with 12th-placed Victoria Branesti, while closest rivals Timisoara – still unbeaten this season – must travel to take on Unirea Urziceni, currently just one place off the bottom despite having clinched the championship crown last year. The highest-placed club from the capital, Rapid Bucharest, lie six points off the summit in third ahead of their engagement away against Targu Mures, in 13th.