Derbies spice up the programme

An exciting weekend lies ahead in Europe's big leagues, with surprise results a distinct possibility, and a string of high-octane fixtures on the match calendar. The focus in Italy is on a prestige-laden clash between two of the pursuing pack, while the Spanish leaders will be hoping for a helping from a bitter local rival.

The attendance record is set to be broken in France, while the German top dogs determined to rectify an uncharacteristically poor streak. By contrast, the top teams in England would normally be expected to beat lesser opponents, while no fewer than six European cities host emotionally-charged derbies. casts an eye over the weekend action around the continent.

Primera Division: Real reliant on bitter rivals
The Spanish title race looked a foregone conclusion just a few weeks ago, but now all the signs point to a two-horse race between super-heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona. The out-of-form men from the capital suddenly find themselves requiring assistance from none other than their fierce city rivals Atletico Madrid to keep hungry Barca at bay.

Frank Rijkaard and his men visit fourth-placed Atletico determined to prove they have what it takes to topple Raul and Co from top spot. For their part, the champions travel to 17th-placed Recreativo Huelva as favourites to win, despite the home team's recent three-game undefeated streak. Villarreal in third will be expected to defeat lowly Osasuna.

The question: Can Atletico bounce back from failure in the UEFA Cup and Spanish Cup, and improve on a record of four defeats in their last six league outings, with a win over mighty Barca?
The big game: Atletico Madrid-Barcelona, Saturday 1 March, 8 pm
The quote: "Titles are decided on the field of play. There are no favourites, because the race is tighter than ever before. The most consistent team will win. That's all that matters," Michel Salgado, Real Madrid right-back.

Premier League: Big guns must meet expectations
The top teams in England all start as clear favourites this weekend, although the league's Goliaths will be acutely aware that points dropped to Davids on matchdays like this very often prove pivotal at the end of the campaign. Any one of the lesser names challenging the big-hitters could pull off an upset on the day.

Leaders Arsenal entertain Aston Villa, with champions Manchester United away to Fulham and third-placed Chelsea travelling across London to West Ham United. Liverpool visit Bolton Wanderers desperate for maximum points to reel in Merseyside rivals Everton, one place and three points ahead of the Reds in fourth, although the in-form Toffees start as favourites at home to Portsmouth. Which of the challengers can pull off a surprise?

The question: A week after a 2-2 draw with front-runners Arsenal, can Birmingham City bring the Gunners' bitter foes and freshly-crowned League Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur back down to earth?
The big game: Arsenal-Aston Villa, Saturday 1 March, 4 pm
The quote: "Every single one of us is burning to get back to the top of the table as quickly as possible, and I'm certain we can do that," Ji-sung Park, Manchester United midfielder.

Bundesliga: Bayern face toughest test yet
A glance at the archives suggests the coming round of Bundesliga fixtures could inject renewed tension into the title race. Leaders Bayern Munich travel to Schalke 04, where Ottmar Hitzfeld's star-studded team have failed to win in their last eight visits. Second-placed Bremen entertain Borussia Dortmund, against whom Werder boast a better home record than any other club.

As if Schalke and Bremen required any further motivation, the pursuing pair will be determined to atone for bitter 1-0 defeats last weekend, although Werder are without the genius of Diego, who picked up a red card in the loss to on-fire Frankfurt. Bayern welcome Franck Ribery back from injury.

The question: With the club in turmoil after consecutive Bundesliga defeats, can Schalke turn the corner at home to the country's most successful club?
The big game: Schalke 04-Bayern Munich, Saturday 1 March, 3.30 pm
The quote: "The task now is to play well against Bayern, and get through to the next round against Porto," Under-fire Schalke boss Mirko Slomka on his side's forthcoming Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League matches.

Serie A: Spotlight on Naples and Turin

Italian champions and current leaders Inter Milan came within an ace of their first league defeat this term in their last two matches against Sampdoria and Roma, but coach Roberto Mancini's men are determined to master what amounts to a minor crisis by returning to winning ways away to Napoli. Only the foolhardy would bet against the Milan giants, as the promoted Neapolitans have won only two of their last ten Serie A games.

Francesco Totti set a new club record with his 387th top flight appearance for Roma in midweek, and Totti's men are heavily backed to beat Parma at home this weekend. The action behind the front two promises to be a lot more hectic, as Juventus in third meet fourth-placed Fiorentina with both clubs desperate not to lose touch with the Rome outfit.

The question: Can on-form Alessandro del Piero and comeback kid David Trezeguet correct Juve's record of a single point from their last two matches and help their team take maximum points against Fiorentina, one of their rivals for a direct UEFA Champions League qualifying berth?
The big game: Juventus-Fiorentina, Sunday 2 March, 3 pm
The quote: "We need to make amends by beating Fiorentina. This match is vital to us," Jonathan Zebina, Juventus defender.

Ligue 1: Place in record books beckons
French top flight history is certain to be written this weekend, as the crunch showdown between Lille and champions Lyon has been switched to the Stade de France in Paris, where officials expect a new Ligue 1 attendance record of some 75,000. The leaders are under pressure, as Lille go into the clash on the back of an away draw with second-placed Girondins Bordeaux, and boast one of the country's best overall records against all-conquering OL.

Former Portugal ace Pauleta may be an injury doubt but, should he play, the Paris St. Germain striker is a safe bet to steal the limelight the following day when he returns to face his old club Bordeaux, where he scored 65 goals in 98 league appearances between 1997 and 2000. During his spell in the capital, the 34-year-old has fired a total of 73 goals in 158 Ligue 1 outings, and even if PSG are underdogs against Laurent Blanc's side, the prolific marksman will be hopeful of increasing his impressive tally.

The question: After battling through to the French Cup final, are PSG on enough of a roll to take something from their match with Bordeaux?
The big game: Lille-Lyon, Saturday 1 March, 5:10 pm (Stade de France, Paris)
The quote: "It's an unusual situation. The Stade de France is a fantastic stadium, but we're going there in search of a good result. Lille and Nancy are the toughest teams in the division, but we're well-prepared and up for the challenge," Alain Perrin, Lyon coach .

It is derby time across Europe this weekend. In Portugal, Oporto's Boavista meet Porto, before Sporting face Benfica in an all-Lisbon duel the following day. Athens giants AEK and Panathinaikos clash in Greece, FC Zurich and Grasshoppers cross swords in Switzerland, Besiktas and Galatasaray contest a full-blooded Istanbul derby, while Belgrade rivals Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) and Partizan meet in Serbia.