European Leagues preview
Cup jousts are set to dominate attentions in England and France this weekend as northern Italy becomes the focal point of the league programme on the Old Continent, with Serie A leaders Inter facing neighbours and arch-rivals AC Milan.
The stakes will be considerable in Germany too, where Bayern Munich welcome back Franck Ribery for their game against Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund can expect a tough test at home against Hamburg. In Spain, meanwhile, the top two must both be fancying their chances against struggling opponents.
FIFA.com casts its usual glance at the upcoming highlights in another round of matches across Europe’s leading championships.
Serie A: A derby for the title?
No question where the biggest game in Italy will unfold this weekend, with all eyes turned towards the San Siro for Sunday’s Milan derby. When the two clubs met earlier this season, the Rossoneri and their new coach Leonardo were still finding their feet and suffered a heavy 4-0 loss to the champions, a result that seemed to suggest Jose Mourinho’s men would face limited opposition on the road to another title.
Since October, Milan have turned their fortunes around and are very much a force on the rise, having strung together ten wins, two draws and one defeat in their last 13 outings. That record has lifted them to second in the standings, six points behind leaders Inter with a match in hand. Sunday’s outcome will therefore have a major bearing on the destination of this year’s Serie A crown and the Nerazzurri will need to beware a seemingly rejuvenated Ronaldinho, the Brazilian forward having struck five goals in his last two games thanks to two efforts in the 3-0 win over Juventus before his hat-trick in last weekend’s 4-0 defeat of Siena.
Away from Milan, the enticing meeting between fifth-placed Juventus and third-placed Roma ought to say much about the race for European spots, as will the fixture pitting Fiorentina, seventh, against Palermo, sixth.
The question: Roma remain unbeaten since late October, while Juve have lurched from one loss to another since November, so who will prevail in Italy’s other high-profile encounter this weekend?
The big game: Inter-AC Milan, Sunday 24 January, 20.45 CET, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
The quote: "A lot of my players aren’t in peak form. Those who are playing are giving everything, but it isn’t enough. We’re going through a very tough period but we have enough quality to get ourselves out of it.” Juventus coach Ciro Ferrara
Bundesliga: Ribery ready for Bayern
Out of action since 3 October due to a series of injury setbacks, French international Franck Ribery is expected to feature for Bayern Munich this Saturday in what promises to be a mouth-watering occasion. Travelling to face sixth-placed Werder Bremen, one of their traditional bête noires, the third-placed Bavarian giants will be desperate to continue the return to form that has hauled them to within two points of frontrunners Bayer Leverkusen. Should Ribery start on the bench, however, his every move is likely to be scrutinised as reports linking him with a move away from Germany continue to emerge.
In other games, second-placed Schalke visit Bochum, in 13th, while fifth-placed Dortmund are gearing up for the match of the weekend at home against the side one spot above them, Hamburg. The mission for Felix Magath’s troops will be to extend their promising run of five consecutive wins in front of their own raucous fans, steeled by the knowledge that adding a sixth success to that sequence would lift them above the visitors.
On Sunday, leaders Leverkusen journey to take on an inconsistent Hoffenheim side, hoping to defend their unbeaten record this term, which now stands at an incredible 18 matches.
The question: Victorious in their last five outings, can Bayern maintain that winning form at Bremen, their bogey team in recent years?
The big game: Borussia Dortmund-Hamburg, Saturday 23 January, 18.30 CET, Westfalenstadion
The quote: "It’s his decision, but I really hope [Ribery] will stay. Here he’s the big star, whereas over there he’d just be one of many.” Bayern midfielder Arjen Robben on rumours linking his team-mate with Real Madrid
La Liga: Top two confident
League titles are not decided in the big games alone but also in the meetings with the supposed lesser lights, and the challenge for Spanish leaders Barcelona this weekend will be to take maximum plunder from a seemingly straightforward fixture at Real Valladolid. Should Josep Guardiola’s charges slip up against the team in 17th, Real Madrid will strive to take advantage at home to 16th-placed Malaga.
With the leading duo engaged against sides near the bottom, the only notable match in the upper reaches brings together two clubs hoping to grab a UEFA Europa League spot in fifth-placed Deportivo La Coruna and Athletic Bilbao, seventh. Elsewhere, the capital will be hosting derby action as unpredictable Getafe, eighth, take on city foes Atletico, who have now risen to 11th and hope to climb higher still.
The question: Can Sevilla halt their damaging run of four straight defeats at home against Almeria?
The big game: Deportivo La Coruna-Athletic Bilbao, Saturday 23 January, 22.00 CET, Estadio Municipal de Riazor
The quote: "Pep is the best coach in the world and the best that this team could have. I can’t imagine Barça without him.” Barcelona midfielder Xavi
Up for the cup
Championship concerns will be put to one side in England and France over the weekend as the national cup competitions take centre stage, with both Round of 64 and Round of 32 ties on the agenda in France following weather disruptions earlier this month. Amid the fixture confusion, one match in particular catches the eye, with Monaco locking horns with Lyon for a place in the last 16. Further north, Leeds United will get to grips with Tottenham Hotspur after their dramatic triumph at Manchester United in the third round.
In the Netherlands, third-placed Ajax will be keen to claw away at the nine-point gap to leaders PSV Eindhoven and Twente when they entertain champions AZ Alkmaar, seventh, in the only high-profile Eredivisie fixture this weekend. In contrast, the 19th round of games in Greece will feature a pair of marquee encounters, with fourth-placed Aris Saloniki welcoming leaders Panathinaikos, and second-placed Olympiakos plotting to add to their three-point lead over the side below them, PAOK.