European Leagues preview
Real Madrid and AC Milan will be looking to bounce back from European calamity with victories in their domestic leagues. In England, Arsenal are on a roll as the run-in gathers pace. German leaders Bayern could strengthen their grip on top spot, but the multiple title candidates in France all face stern tests.
FIFA.com previews the weekend action in Europe’s five biggest leagues.
Premier League: Arsenal launch spring offensive
After thrashing Porto 5-0 in the Champions League, Arsenal have now trained their sights on the two clubs ahead of them in the Premier League. The third-placed Gunners visit second-from-bottom Hull City. Arsene Wenger’s side have the easiest run-in of all the contenders, with only four of their remaining games against teams in the top half of the table, so the north London giants will be quietly confident of title glory.
Leaders Manchester United and chief pursuers Chelsea, who are two points off the top with a game in hand, would be expected to take maximum points at home. The champions will hope Wayne Rooney maintains his scintillating form against Fulham, while Chelsea face east London rivals West Ham United. The Red Devils urgently need to avoid slip-ups, as they have yet to face Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City before the end of the season.
The question: Can West Ham boss Gianfranco Zola upset the club where he earned iconic status as a player?
The big game: Chelsea-West Ham, Saturday, 16.00, Stamford Bridge
The quote: "I sense we’ve understood completely that we’re entering a phase in which every game truly matters," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
La Liga: Despondent Madrid seek fresh start
Following their devastating midweek exit from the Champions League at the hands of an obdurate Lyon side, Real Madrid must resume normal service away to relegation-threatened Valladolid, as domestic league silverware is the only way the men from the capital can salvage something from their season now. It is a question of character for Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and company, as the expensively assembled Madrid team need to put their European nightmare behind them as swiftly as possible.
Real’s woes have rather overshadowed the biggest game of the weekend. Champions Barcelona, currently behind their arch-rivals in the standings on goal difference, entertain third-placed Valencia. A decent display after a string of humdrum performances would do Barça no end of good. Elsewhere, fourth-placed Sevilla meet sixth-placed Deportivo La Coruna, both sides seeking to stay in touch with the leading three.
The question: The league’s leading scorers Lionel Messi (19 goals) and David Villa (17) go head-to-head in Barcelona. Who will be celebrating after the 90 minutes are up?
The big game: Barcelona-Valencia, Sunday, 19.00, Camp Nou
The quote: "The league is all we have left. We need a fresh start, here and now," Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas.
Serie A: Fallen giants with points to prove
Rehabilitation is also the order of the day for two of the big names in Italy. AC Milan need to rid themselves of the 4-0 humbling by Manchester United, and beating Chievo Verona at home would be a good start. Juventus appear in front of their home crowd in Serie A for the first time since a dismal 2-0 reverse at Palermo’s hands. Anything less than maximum points against tail-enders Siena will not be enough for the Turin side.
Third-placed Roma and leaders Inter will be expected to win at a canter. The men from the capital travel to promoted Livorno, with the champions away to Catania. A clash boasting a rich and turbulent history takes place in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, where Fiorentina will seek to end Napoli’s unbeaten home record. Those who like a flutter might want to speculate on a draw, as both sides have won just once this calendar year.
The question: Following the debacle in Manchester, Milan boss Leonardo has insisted his side’s European exit will have no impact on their Serie A campaign – but is he right?
The big game: Napoli-Fiorentina, Saturday, 20.45, San Paolo
The quote: "I’ve always said we’re in a position to go a long, long way, provided we can field a full-strength side," Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli.
Ligue 1: Tighter than ever at the top
For a long time, it looked as if Girondins Bordeaux would retain their Ligue 1 crown with some ease, but the French title race has suddenly developed into an almighty scrap with no fewer than six realistic contenders. The current top two come from opposite ends of the spectrum. Champions Girondins retain a game in hand, but have tossed away an eight-point lead and are now level on points with promoted Montpellier. The weekend fixtures could provide significant pointers to what lies ahead.
Montpellier entertain third-placed Auxerre, who are on a charge after winning away to Girondins in midweek. For their part, Bordeaux travel to seventh-placed Monaco. However, with just four points separating first from sixth in France, no-one has yet written off Olympique Lyon. Basking in the achievement of knocking Real Madrid out of the Champions League, the former serial champions could complete an unforgettable week – and theoretically go top of the league - with a home win over Rhone Valley rivals St. Etienne.
The question: After going to Bordeaux and winning 2-1 last Wednesday, can Auxerre spoil the party in Montpellier and, depending on results elsewhere, possibly seize first place in the standings?
The big game: Montpellier-Auxerre, Saturday, 19.00, Stade de la Mosson
The quote: "We can’t afford to be taking just a single point from two home games. That’s just not good enough for a team aiming for the title," Bordeaux defender Mathieu Chalme.
Bundesliga: Cunning coaches in the spotlight
Leverkusen lost both their unbeaten record this term and top spot in the table last weekend, but Bayer are far from writing off their title chances this season. However, Jupp Heynckes’ side, now down to third in the table, face a stern test at home to fourth-placed Hamburg.
Second-placed Schalke must deal with an equally tricky challenge. Felix Magath’s men entertain VfB Stuttgart, who have culled 19 of a possible 24 points since the mid-season break under new boss Christian Gross. By contrast, leaders Bayern have a considerably easier home fixture on paper. Louis van Gaal’s star ensemble take on struggling Freiburg, who are without a win since November. The situation at the top could well become a lot clearer by Sunday evening.
The question: Can Hamburg boss Bruno Labbadia deliver another body-blow to the side he coached only last season?
The big game: Leverkusen-Hamburg, Sunday, 17:30, BayArena
The quote: "It's time to wake up. Throughout the first half of the season, and often enough since then too, we’ve shown we have the ability. That’s what we need to get back to," Leverkusen striker Stefan Kiessling.
European football fans will want to keep an eye on the Netherlands this weekend, where two of the nation’s perennial giants come to blows. Third-placed Ajax meet second-placed PSV Eindhoven in Amsterdam, in a game where losing is not an option for either side. Leaders Twente Enschede could profit by beating Den Haag.
The new season in Russia gets underway, with Moscow trio Spartak, Locomotive and CSKA, together with Zenit St. Petersburg, all bent on toppling champions Rubin Kazan from their throne. However, Rubin are in good heart after winning the local Super Cup, and will hope for a perfect start in the league against Locomotive.