With the finishing line now very much in sight across Europe’s leading leagues, the tension levels are set to rise yet another notch this weekend. Expect the atmosphere to be absolutely sizzling in Barcelona, Rome and Manchester as a trio of title contenders attempt to advance their claims in city derbies, while in France, Lyon and Bordeaux renew acquaintances a week after the former dumped the latter out of the UEFA Champions League.
In Germany, finally, Bayern Munich will be confident of securing another success after building up ominous momentum both in the Bundesliga and on the European stage. FIFA.com previews the best of the forthcoming action across the continent.
Premier League: Big tests for top two
Beaten by Chelsea and held by Blackburn Rovers in their most recent sorties, second-placed Manchester United have seriously jeopardised their dreams of clinching a record fourth straight title. They could fall even further off the pace if they fail to snatch victory on Saturday in what is sure to be a highly charged derby away to Manchester City, with their neighbours currently fourth and buoyed by in-form striker Carlos Tevez. The former Red Devil has been racing up the scoring charts of late and will relish the opportunity to down Sir Alex Ferguon’s men, who could then lose second spot to Arsenal if the Gunners prosper at Wigan Athletic. As for frontrunners Chelsea, they will hope to avoid slipping up at fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, where a Champions League spot remains attainable and spirits have been soaring since Wednesday’s north London derby win over Arsenal.
In the lower reaches, meanwhile, second-bottom Hull City and third-bottom Burnley must pull out all the stops with the threat of relegation increasingly looming. Neither side can expect an easy mission, however, as the former are due at Birmingham City and the latter face a visit to Sunderland.
The question: The last goalless stalemate in a Manchester derby came on 16 November 1991. Will the nets bulge again this weekend?
The big game: Manchester City-Manchester United, Saturday, 13.45, City of Manchester Stadium.
The quote: "We just need to think about putting a real gap between ourselves and the bottom three. It’ll be difficult, but that means we have to go to Liverpool with the mentality of getting something out of the game,” Matthew Upson, West Ham captain.
Ligue 1: OM on fire, Bordeaux burnt out
The entire city of Marseille is on edge as Didier Deschamps’s side move ever closer to their first league crown since 1992. Five points clear of Auxerre after beating midweek opponents Sochaux 1-0 in their game in hand, OM will remain on top of the pile whatever happens on their trip to face Boulogne, who are already resigned to contesting Ligue 2 football next term.
In contrast, nothing is going right for Bordeaux at the moment after the champions suffered their third successive defeat away to a Le Mans team almost certainly destined for relegation. Now fifth, Blanc’s troops have surrendered the title but could lose much more if they fail to arrest their slide, which perhaps makes third-placed Lyon the best team they could welcome on Sunday. The Rhone outfit denied Bordeaux a place in the Champions League semi-finals and will be wary of hosts now set on revenge.
The question: Mamadou Niang remains Ligue 1's top scorer despite failing to find the net in six games, but Monaco forward Nene is closing fast. Will the Senegalese international finally end his drought at Boulogne?
The big game: Bordeaux-Lyon, Sunday, 21.00, Stade Chaban-Delmas
The quote: "As far as the title goes, we have to stop dreaming. It’s such a waste. We now have seven matches left and we’ll need to get maximum points in all of them to qualify for Europe,” Matthieu Chalme, Bordeaux defender.
Serie A: All eyes on Rome and Milan
Sparks are set to fly in Serie A this weekend with a pair of mouth-watering encounters on the menu. The capital is braced for a high-stakes derby between new leaders Roma and a Lazio outfit lying 16th and fighting off relegation, while in the derby d’Italia, second-placed Inter Milan are preparing themselves for the visit of Juventus, in fifth. With the Rome rivals locking horns on Sunday, Inter will be eager to take over at the top – at least temporarily – and boost confidence ahead of their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona.
For their part, third-placed AC Milan have let their title hopes fade in recent weeks but must triumph at Sampdoria if they are to retain at least a lingering chance of glory. Their hosts will not be pushovers, however, as they lie fifth and are still dreaming of a Champions League berth, as are the team directly above them, Palermo, who travel to take on a Cagliari side chasing a first win in ten outings.
The question: The nominal away team has failed to prevail in the last seven Rome derbies. Will I Giallorossi be able to end that sequence?
The big game: Inter Milan-Juventus, Friday, 20.45, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
The quote: “There are lots of teams aiming for a place in Europe, but nobody should forget us, even if we’ve fallen behind the others a little. Atalanta still believe they can stay up, though, so it will be a difficult match,” Marco Marchionni, Fiorentina midfielder.
La Liga: Real looking to rekindle flame
Given a jolt to the system by Barcelona last weekend, Real Madrid desperately need to give the Santiago Bernabeu faithful something to cheer about again when they entertain third-placed Valencia. Three points clear of Los Merengues, leaders Barcelona will be eager to emerge victorious in their Catalan derby with Espanyol, who celebrated a surprise 2-1 success at the Camp Nou last term and also troubled the Blaugrana before succumbing 1-0 earlier this season.
Further back, mid-table Atletico Madrid remain dogged by inconsistency, capable of downing Barça and reaching the UEFA Europa League semi-finals but also of losing 2-1 at home against basement club Xerez in midweek. Their challenge this time out will be to triumph at eighth-placed Villarreal, another team guilty of blowing both hot and cold as demonstrated by Wednesday’s 3-0 loss at Getafe, which halted a run of three straight triumphs.
The question: Without a win in their last seven encounters, will Deportivo la Coruna be able to reverse that trend at home against Almeria?
The big game: Real Madrid-Valencia, Sunday, 22.00, Santiago Bernabeu
The quote: "We’re a long way behind in the Liga but we’re not throwing in the towel just yet. We have to go for it and win as many points as possible, but obviously we want to reach the final of the Europa League,” Sergio Aguero, Atletico Madrid striker.
Bundesliga: Will Bayern keep winning?
Bayern Munich can start to breath a little easier after a daunting sequence of matches in which they sent Manchester United tumbling out of the Champions League, overcame Schalke and replaced them at the Bundesliga summit, and collected a point at fellow high-flyers Bayer Leverkusen. After a run like that, Bayern’s home fixture against relegation-threatened Hannover looks almost a formality, yet Louis van Gaal’s charges will have to guard against complacency as they face the side that downed Schalke 4-2 last Saturday. As for the team beaten in that game, Felix Magath’s title hopefuls will need to bounce back convincingly at home to 11th-placed Borussia Monchengladbach.
In pole position only a few weeks back, Bayer face a struggle to hold on to third spot as they visit seventh-placed Stuttgart, with the home side boasting a run of four consecutive wins. Fourth-placed Borussia Dortmund and Werder Bremen, in fifth, have both closed the gap in recent times and will be keeping their fingers crossed for another slip from the Leverkusen side as they tackle Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg respectively.
The question: Can Claudio Pizarro become the most prolific overseas player in Bundesliga history? Bremen’s Peruvian international currently boasts 131 goals, two fewer than current standard bearer Elber.
The big game: Stuttgart-Bayer Leverkusen, Saturday, 15.30, Mercedes-Benz Arena
The quote: "We’ve already reached the goals we set ourselves, but unlike Monchengladbach we have the possibility of aiming for even more in our last few matches,” Felix Magath, Schalke coach.
Fans in Romania are looking forward to one of the country’s fiercest derbies this weekend, with Rapid Bucharest, in seventh, due to meet second-placed Steaua. While the hosts have little more than bragging rights to play for, visitors Steaua find themselves just a solitary point shy of pacesetters Cluj, who travel to third-placed Timisoara.
In Sweden, lastly, the seventh instalment of league action brings together the only two clubs yet to taste defeat. Leaders Helsingborg welcome a Malmo side two points back and both will be hoping to emerge from their encounter as the sole unbeaten outfit.