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Autumn is often the time when any surprise high-flyers around Europe’s top leagues begin their descent to more familiar reaches of the standings, but Lazio, Rennes and Borussia Dortmund are lasting the pace well at the present time. looks ahead to the weekend programme in the continent’s five biggest leagues, but also casts a glance further afield to four of Europe’s most prestigious and fiercely contested derbies.

Premier League: City aim to lay down a marker
The Wayne Rooney saga continues to dominate the English back pages, but Sir Alex Ferguson is just as concerned about Manchester United’s inability to put together a winning run in the Premier League. Fourth-placed United are away to Stoke City, while leaders Chelsea will be determined to make up for the points dropped in a goalless draw away to Aston Villa last week when they entertain lowly Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Second meets third in the biggest clash of the weekend when Manchester City entertain Arsenal. City captain Carlos Tevez is in prolific form with seven goals in eight games, the same number scored by the entire Liverpool squad this term. Roy Hodgson’s crisis team are second from bottom and urgently need all three points at home to Blackburn.

The question: It was still August when Liverpool last won in the Premier League. Can the fallen giants rediscover their touch on Sunday?
The big game: Manchester City-Arsenal, Sunday 17.00, City of Manchester Stadium
The quote: “If we carry on talking about one individual, dominating all of the headlines and all of our thoughts, then we're not doing our job,” Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

La Liga: Villarreal sandwiched by big two
When Jose Mourinho took charge of Real Madrid’s flamboyant stars, some observers doubted his ability to instil the defensive discipline which won his former club Inter honours galore. However, keeper Iker Casillas has only conceded three goals in the first seven league games, and the men from the capital have charged to the top of the table. The home crowd will be hoping for plenty of goals at the away end when Mourinho’s men host Racing Santander.

The champions could do with Cristiano Ronaldo and Co slipping up. Barcelona are a point and two places behind Madrid, and cannot afford anything less than three points on their travels to bottom club Zaragoza. Villarreal, currently separating the Big Two at the top of the standings, will be looking to five-goal Nilmar as they seek to maintain their excellent start at home to fifth-placed Atletico Madrid.

The question: Can Villarreal make it seven league games without defeat?
The big game: Villarreal–Atletico Madrid, Sunday 21.00, El Madrigal
The quote: “My sense of identification with the players and the club is growing all the time. We’re all on the same wavelength,” Real Madrid coach, Jose Mourinho.

Serie A: Stern tests for Milan giants
Lazio and Fiorentina generally start the campaign with similar targets: both would expect to be competing for a place in Europe the following season. However, the contrast in fortune this term could hardly be greater. The men from the capital can defend top spot with a win against Cagliari, but Fiorentina urgently need all three points at home to Bari as they seek to escape the foot of the table.

The Milan clubs face stern tests of their credentials. Inter entertain inconsistent but occasionally majestic Sampdoria, with AC Milan away to fourth-placed Napoli. Resurgent Juventus can stay in touch at the top with a win away to struggling Bologna.

The question: Sampdoria were one of only two Serie A sides not to be beaten by Inter at least once last season. Can they resist the Nerazzurri again?
The big game: Napoli-AC Milan, Monday, 20.45, San Paolo
The quote: “The likes of Inter, Milan and Juventus play at a higher level and are more accustomed to higher targets than we are,” Lazio defender, Giuseppe Biava.

Ligue 1: Big names seek to maintain recovery
Exactly a year ago, promoted Montpellier were making waves right at the top of the Ligue 1 standings. Rennes have assumed that mantle this season, and the undefeated leaders now meet the men from the south, who are a much more predictable ninth at the moment. But perhaps Montpellier understand the secret of undoing early-season high-flyers?

Lyon will seek to maintain their recovery from a dismal start to the campaign when they meet struggling Arles-Avignon. Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain will expect wins at home to Brest and Auxerre, but champions Marseille face a tough fight for the points in a tricky trip to Lille.

The question: Promoted Brest have kept clean sheets in six of their nine league games so far. Can they do it again away to Bordeaux?
The big game: Lille–Olympique Marseille, Sunday 21.00, Stade Nord Lille Metropole
The quote: “My players are getting stronger, both physically and in terms of our play. This is the course we have to follow,” Lyon coach, Claude Puel.

Bundesliga: Dortmund out to maintain momentum
Mainz lost their perfect record last weekend, and big-name strikers Mario Gomez and Raul Gonzalez are back among the goals, indicating revival time at Bayern Munich and Schalke. The weekend fixtures are a good litmus test of whether the old order is about to be re-established. Bayern travel to northern foes Hamburg, with Schalke away to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Leaders Borussia Dortmund are on a roll thanks to their free-scoring young team, but will need all their flair when they host fourth-placed Hoffenheim. After losing at home to Hamburg last week, Mainz dropped to second and face a serious examination of their durability away to third-placed Bayer Leverkusen.

The question: Can Dortmund extend their winning run in the Bundesliga to eight games?
The big game: Hamburg-Bayern, Friday 20.30, Imtech-Arena
The quote: “We’re totally uninterested in the current standings. Anyone seriously suggesting we can win the league has no idea of how football works,” Borussia Dortmund director of sport, Michael Zorc.

No fewer than four of Europe’s biggest derby clashes take place this weekend. In Scotland, both Celtic and Rangers have made perfect starts, but one or both will drop points for the first time. The Athens derby pits AEK with Panathinaikos in Greece, while Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce and Galatasaray step into the spotlight in Turkey. In Serbia, the Belgrade derby between Crvena Zvezda and Partizan is also the meeting between the leaders and their closest pursuers.

In the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven will attempt to maintain their unbeaten start against faltering Feyenoord, and in Russia, CSKA can leapfrog Rubin Kazan and go second if they beat the champions at home.