Top teams limber up for Europe

With many of Europe's leading teams poised to embark on the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, morale-boosting league wins this weekend would provide a welcome tonic. previews the forthcoming action around the continent.

Premier League: Debut for Hiddink
Third meets fourth in the crunch showdown of the weekend, as Aston Villa entertain Chelsea. The Blues are desperate to revive a stuttering season with a victory to mark new manager Guus Hiddink’s first game in charge.

Manchester United and Liverpool aim to cement first and second spots when they face Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City respectively. United currently top the standings, five points clear of the Reds, who are themselves three clear of Villa. Arsene Wenger's Arsenal urgently require three points against Sunderland to stay within touching distance of the Champions League qualifying places.

The question:
Can Hiddink restore Chelsea's flagging fortunes?
The big game: Aston Villa-Chelsea, Saturday, 21 February, 13.45, Villa Park
The quote: "Hiddink is experienced, strong and successful, with South Korea, Australia and Russia. He hauls his teams up to the next level. That's what we’re trying to do at Chelsea. We want success here."
Michael Ballack, Chelsea player

La Liga: Contrasting fortunes in Catalan derby
The big two in Barcelona approach the weekend derby from utterly contrasting standpoints. Leaders Barça, undefeated in 22 league games and with 19 wins so far, host bottom club Espanyol, winless in their last 14 matches. Barcelona will still be on their guard, as the last two meetings at Camp Nou ended 0-0 an 2-2.

Champions Real Madrid, currently in second, will fully expect to beat 15th-placed Real Betis and extend a run of eight wins on the bounce. At the wrong end of the table, Osasuna meet Numancia in a genuine relegation six-pointer.

The question: Can Real make inroads into the leaders' ten-point advantage, or will Barcelona continue their imperious progress?
The big game: Barcelona-Espanyol, Saturday 21 February, 20.00, Camp Nou
The quote:
"Every team comes under pressure at some point. But to be totally honest, I'm not even thinking about who might be second or third. If we maintain our rhythm and get the results, it doesn't matter what the others do," Martin Caceres, Barcelona player.

Serie A: Chasers seek Bologna favour
Inter Milan revelled in a near-perfect set of results last weekend, as they edged arch-rivals AC Milan and extended their lead at the top to nine points. Jose Mourinho's men will be confident of coming away from promoted Bologna with maximum points. Chasing duo Juventus and AC meet Palermo and Cagliari, ninth and seventh in the standings respectively.

The game in Palermo is a special occasion for Juventus's 12-goal top scorer Amauri, as the 28-year-old made the breakthrough in Serie A during a two-year spell with the Sicilian outfit. The men from Turin are also desperate to make amends for a 2-1 defeat in the reverse fixture, one of two defeats at home for Juve this term.

The question: Can AC Milan put defeat by Inter behind them and prevent the champions striding unassailably clear at the top?
The big game: Palermo-Juventus, Saturday 21 February, 20.30, Stadio Renzo Barbera
The quote: "I had two wonderful years here. Coming back to the stadium will be a very emotional moment. If I manage to score, I won't be celebrating out of respect to the club which made it possible for me to join Juventus," Amauri, Juventus player.

Bundesliga: Three big games and a derby
The German title race is as tight as anyone can remember, with just three points separating first from fourth. The pursuing pack collide this weekend with three mouth-watering fixtures. Leaders Hertha Berlin travel to sixth-placed Wolfsburg, while second-placed Hoffenheim aim to recover top spot away to Stuttgart, in seventh. However, arguably the most daunting task of the lot falls to third-placed Hamburg, away to the team just three points and two places behind them; free-scoring Bayer Leverkusen. Depending on results elsewhere, champions Bayern Munich could leap from fourth to first with a win at home to mid-table Cologne.

The weekend opens with Ruhr valley rivals Schalke and Borussia Dortmund meeting for the 133rd time. The 62,000 full house at the Schalke Arena can expect the usual fireworks, the reverse fixture having featured six goals, two penalties and two sendings-off.

The question: Can Hertha defend top spot, or will one of Hoffenheim, Hamburg and Bayern dislodge the leaders from their perch?
The big game: Bayer Leverkusen-Hamburg, Sunday 22 February, 17.00, LTU Arena (Dusseldorf)
The quote: "After what happened at their place, we definitely sense feelings of revenge. My lads are on fire, you can see it out on the training ground. They’re all really looking forward to the derby," Fred Rutten, Schalke coach

Ligue 1: Easy on paper for leading teams
Lyon, champions for the last seven seasons, have opened up a four-point lead at the top of the standings. On paper at least, the weekend schedule suggests little change in the offing, as all the leading sides face teams in the bottom half.

Lyon travel to tenth-placed Nancy, chief pursuers Paris Saint-Germain are away to promoted Grenoble, third-placed Marseille entertain Le Mans, 12 places below them in the table, and Toulouse, in fourth, meet 17th-placed Valenciennes.

The question: Which of the four-strong pursuing pack can remain hot on the heels of serial champions Lyon?
The big game: Nancy-Lyon, Saturday 21 February, 19.00, Stade Marcel Picot
The quote: "We’re happy with the position we’re in, but it can all change at any time, and we’ll have to keep on fighting if we want to achieve the goals we’ve set ourselves. We’ll try and finish in the top five. If we’re still fit enough towards the end of the season, we might still be able to set our sights higher," Claude Makelele, Paris Saint-Germain player

In Belgium, leaders Anderlecht meet their chief rivals, reigning champions Standard Liege. The clubs are just a point apart at present.

In Portugal, Benfica and Sporting, second and third in the standings, contest the Lisbon derby. Leaders Porto visit 12-placed Pacos de Ferreira hoping to stretch their advantage over the clubs from the capital.

The Greek schedule features two derbies. PAOK and Iraklis meet in Thessaloniki, with Panathinaikos squaring up to Panionios in Athens.