European Leagues review
Europe’s league leaders failed to break any further clear of their closest challengers this weekend, with Arsenal, Real Madrid and Napoli keeping pace with Manchester United, Barcelona and AC Milan respectively, while Lille and Borussia Dortmund both lost and had their respective leads in France and Germany trimmed.
FIFA.com rounds up those stories and more from another high-octane round of games in the continent’s major leagues.
Premier League: Top two stay strong
Arsenal kept their title bid alive with a shaky 3-1 win at struggling Blackpool. The Gunners created chance after chance in taking a 2-0 first-half lead but had to hold off a determined fightback from their hosts before Robin Van Persie struck to seal the points. All this after Manchester United had made short work of Fulham on Saturday, the in-form Nani setting up Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia for both goals. United remain seven points clear of the Londoners, having played one game more.
Chelsea maintained their mini-revival with a 1-0 win at home to Wigan Athletic, and now lie third, two points clear of Manchester City, who visit Liverpool this evening.
Top three: Manchester United (69 points), Arsenal (62), Chelsea (58)
Bottom three: Wolverhampton Wanderers (32), West Ham United (32), Wigan Athletic (31)
Leading scorers: Dimitar Berbatov (21 goals), Carlos Tevez (19), Darren Bent (13)
Weekend stat: 18 - The number of assists Manchester United’s Nani has served up this season, the latest two coming in the 2-0 defeat of Fulham, enough to secure him the man of the match award. The Portuguese midfielder has also scored eight goals this term.
La Liga: Messi to the rescue
Trailing 1-0 at home to bottom club Almeria, frontrunners Barcelona were indebted once again to Lionel Messi, who struck twice after four games without a goal to seal a 3-1 win. The Argentinian ace is now one goal clear of Cristiano Ronaldo in the scoring charts, the Portuguese notching his 28th of the season in setting the seal on Real Madrid’s emphatic 3-0 win at Athletic Bilbao. Also on the scoresheet at San Mames was Kaka, who enjoyed a productive day’s work in an injury-hit season, converting two penalties, both of them won by an effervescent Angel Di Maria.
Elsewhere, Valencia took a big stride towards clinching third place by destroying neighbours Villarreal 5-0, moving them six points clear of the men in yellow.
Weekend stat: 38 - The record number of goals scored in a Spanish league season, set by Telmo Zarra in 1951 and equalled by Mexican sharpshooter Hugo Sanchez in 1990. That impressive mark is under threat from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom were on target again this weekend.
Serie A: Pressure builds on Milan
Milan had it all to do on Sunday evening after chasing pair Napoli and Inter both won earlier in the weekend, I Nerazzurri seeing off Chievo at home thanks to goals from Esteban Cambiasso and Maicon, while the Southerners posted the same scoreline at Bologna despite the absence of their top scorer Edinson Cavani. Massimiliano Allegri’s side kept their cool, however, taking a two-goal lead at Fiorentina through Clarence Seedorf and Alexandre Pato before holding off a late Viola comeback to post a priceless 2-1 win. On the downside for the leaders, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sent off.
In the race for fourth and a place in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League, Lazio capitalised on Udinese’s 2-1 reverse at Roma, both of whose goals came from a defiant Francesco Totti, to move a point above I Bianconeri with a 2-0 victory at Parma.
Top three: AC Milan (68 points), Napoli (65), Inter Milan (63)
Bottom three: Cesena (31), Brescia (30), Bari (21)
Leading scorers: Antonio di Natale (26 goals), Edinson Cavani (25), Marco di Vaio, Samuel Eto'o (19)
Weekend stat: 26 - The number of goals Antonio di Natale has now amassed this season, the Udinese striker moving one clear of the suspended Edinson Cavani after scoring his side’s only goal in their defeat at Roma.
Bundesliga: Van Gaal reign ends
Louis Van Gaal's tenure as Bayern Munich coach came to an end following his side's disappointing 1-1 draw at Nuremberg, a result that allowed Hannover to leapfrog the Bavarian giants into third place. The Dutchman, who was due to leave the club at the end of the season, departed after a run of poor form and rumours of dressing-room dissatisfaction.
Sixteen points ahead at the midwinter break, Borussia Dortmund had their advantage trimmed to just five after drawing 1-1 at Hamburg, though Die Schwarzgelben were grateful for the point after trailing going into injury time. Second-placed Bayer Leverkusen intensified the pressure on Dortmund, who are looking for their seventh title and first since 2002, after coming from behind to beat relegation-threatened St Pauli 2-1.
Down in the basement, Borussia Monchengladbach belied their status as the bottom club by thrashing Cologne 5-1.
Top three: Borussia Dortmund (66 points), Bayer Leverkusen (61), Hannover (53)
Bottom three: Wolfsburg, St. Pauli (28), Borussia Monchengladbach (26)
Leading scorers: Papiss Cisse (20 goals), Mario Gomez (19), Theofanis Gekas (16)
Weekend stat: 6 - The number of coaches who have occupied the Bayern Munich hotseat in the last seven years. That number will become seven at the end of the season, when current Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes comes in to replace caretaker boss Andries Jonker, who stepped up from assistant coach to replace Van Gaal. Heynckes is no stranger to Bayern, having won two Bundesliga titles with them in 1989 and 1990.
Ligue 1: Lille lose their way
Seemingly unstoppable just a few short weeks ago, Lille now have a battle on their hands after Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Monaco, in which Gervinho was dismissed. Marseille had the chance to cut the deficit on Les Dogues to a solitary point but had to settle for a 2-2 draw at home to Toulouse, Andre-Pierre Gignac snatching the equaliser for l’OM against his old club with just five minutes remaining.
Lyon moved back into contention after a three-goal second-half surge gave them maximum points against Lens, while Rennes dropped down to fourth after losing 2-0 at Brest, their fourth game without a win. Fifth-placed PSG ended a similarly barren run in edging out Caen by the odd goal in three.
Top three: Lille (58 points), Marseille (55), Lyon (53)
Bottom three: Auxerre (34), Lens (28), Arles-Avignon (13)
Leading scorers: Moussa Sow (20 goals), Kevin Gameiro (16), Youssef El-Arabi (15)
Weekend stat: 16 - The number of draws Auxerre have now chalked up after sharing four goals with Saint-Etienne. No other side in Europe’s top five leagues has recorded as many stalemates this season.
One week on from clinching the title in Portugal with victory at Benfica, Porto maintained the winning habit by edging out bottom-placed Portimonense 3-2.
In the Netherlands, Ajax did their championship challenge the power of good by overcoming Groningen at home, while leaders Twente were held to a 1-1 by Roda. Second-placed PSV Eindhoven also had to settle for a share of the points home to Heerenveen, with three points now separating Ajax in third and Twente.