The five-point European review
With the exception of England, where the Premier League took a backseat to the FA Cup this weekend, the major European leagues provided their usual exciting mix of top-of-the-table battles, goalscoring exploits and record-breaking feats.
Paris Saint-Germain remain top in France, despite the best efforts of nearest challengers Montpellier. In Spain, Real Madrid racked up another win to maintain their considerable lead over Barcelona, who must now be pinning their hopes on their eternal rivals hitting a rough patch of form.
The fight to be crowned kings of Italy is much tighter, with Juventus and AC Milan neck and neck in the run-up to their much-anticipated clash next weekend. In Germany, meanwhile, leaders Borussia Dortmund won again, while an uninspired Bayern Munich could only draw at Freiburg.
FIFA.com rounds up all the headlines from an eventful weekend across Europe.
Paris Saint-Germain 2-2 Montpellier, Matchday 24 in Ligue 1
First took on second in Ligue 1 on Sunday night at the Parc des Princes, where PSG welcomed Montpellier, with just one point separating the teams in the standings. Rene Girard’s men arrived in the French capital determined to make up for the 3-0 defeat suffered at the hands of the Parisians earlier in the season, and exuded the confidence of a team on a seven-match unbeaten run, during which not one goal was conceded. PSG could also point to their own fine run of form, which saw them go into the match having not lost in eight league encounters.
Dominated from the outset by their enterprising visitors, Carlo Ancelotti’s charges nevertheless found a way to goal in the 41st minute, Alex’s powerful bending free kick opening the scoring. Montpellier reacted well, however, equalising just before the break via a diving header from Younes Belhanda, after being set up nicely by Vitorino Hilton.
In the second half, fans also had to wait until near the end for the ball to hit the back of the net. First, Montpellier looked to have pulled off a tremendous result in the 83rd minute when Olivier Giroud, Ligue 1’s leading goalscorer, registered his seventh assist of the season by delivering a cross onto the head of the unmarked John Utaka, who made no mistake. But PSG bounced back in impressive fashion, and after Jeremy Menez went on a mazy run in the box two minutes from time, Guillaume Hoarau was on hand to knock home his pass for the leveller.
The result maintains Paris’ slender one-point lead over Montpellier at the top of the league table.
Handicapped by numerous injuries and put under pressure by Juventus’ victory the night before, AC Milan calmly reclaimed the Serie A leadership courtesy of a composed 3-1 win at Cesena. The success is sure to put the wind in I Rossoneri's sails as they prepare to face La Vecchia Signora next weekend, and tops off a fantastic week for the club, during which Arsenal were summarily dismissed 4-0 in the UEFA Champions League. The absence of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Cesena was compensated by goals from Robinho, Sulley Muntari and Urby Emanuelson, the last two names bringing to 17 the number of scorers to have contributed to Milan’s 48 league goals this season, the highest total in the Italian top tier.
Real Madrid kept up their relentless pace at the top of La Liga thanks to a sparkling 4-0 triumph over Racing Santander at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday. While their strikeforce was on top form, exemplified by Karim Benzema’s brace, Real’s defence can also give itself a pat on the back, helping the team to record a clean sheet at home for the first time in 11 matches. Ten points behind in second place, Barcelona over-ran third-placed Valencia 5-1 at Camp Nou, in a match which featured four goals from Lionel Messi and one from Xavi.
Raul scored the 400th competitive goal of his career on Sunday, grabbing the opener in Schalke’s 4-0 demolition of Wolfsburg. The former Madrid star becomes the first-ever Spanish player to achieve such a feat. 323 of his goals were scored while in the colours of Real Madrid, 44 for his national team, and 33 for his current employers, of which 11 have come this season. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored twice for the Gelsenkirchen-based club, enabling him to join Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez at the top of the Bundesliga scoring charts. The result propels Schalke to within one point of Bayern, who sit third after playing out a 0-0 draw with Freiburg.
Andrea Pirlo was the hero of the hour for Juventus against Catania this weekend, rescuing his side after they had fallen behind to a shock early goal at home. The former Milan stalwart began by equalising with a 22nd-minute free kick, which also happened to be his first goal of the season. He then drove his team-mates on to victory in the final quarter of an hour by setting up both Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Quagliarella for the home side’s second and third goals of the night. The Turin outfit remain unbeaten this season and head into next week’s key encounter with leaders Milan in confident mood. For Pirlo, there will likely be mixed emotions, as he returns to the stage upon which he performed so expertly between 2001 and 2011.
Gael Kakuta is unlikely to be harbouring any regrets since his decision to swap a place on the Chelsea bench for first-team football in Ligue 1 with Dijon, who overcame Nice 3-0 away from home on Saturday. The Frenchman opened the scoring just before half-time after being set up by Brice Jovial, before returning the favour eight minutes into the second period. Kakuta’s strike was his third goal in all competitions since the France U-21 international’s arrival in Dijon in January, all of which have been scored from outside the area. The success sees Dijon rise to 13th position in the French standings.
50 – After initially missing two huge opportunities on Saturday, Sidney Govou finally scored his 50th goal in Ligue 1, and an important strike it was too, delivering a point for Evian in injury time in a 2-2 draw at Caen. It was the first time the much-decorated former France international had found the net since returning to play in the French championship last summer.
6 – Friday saw Nikolce Noveski score a goal that he would likely prefer to forget, given that it represented the sixth time that Mainz’s Macedonian defender has put the ball in his own net in 173 Bundesliga matches, and that it also helped opponents Hoffenheim to secure a 1-1 home draw. In attaining this dubious honour, he draws level with former Hamburg defender Manfred Kaltz, who also had the misfortune of scoring six own goals in 581 league matches during the 1970s and ’80s.
16 – With their tricky start to the season now well behind them, Borussia Dortmund consolidated their place at the top of the Bundesliga this weekend by recording a solid 1-0 away victory over Hertha Berlin, which stretched their unbeaten league run to 16 matches. The win helps the reigning champions to maintain a three-point lead over Borussia Monchengladbach, who overcame Kaiserslautern 2-1. Bayern Munich, meanwhile, lie third, four points behind the leaders.
7 – Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener against Racing on Saturday was his 121st in the No7 jersey of Real Madrid, and it brought him level with celebrated forward Juanito in the club’s all-time scoring list. Juanito also wore the No7 shirt, and slotted the same number of goals for Los Blancos between 1977 and 1987. Ronaldo is the leading scorer in La Liga this season with 28 goals.
Five memorable moments
Messi to the four: On Sunday evening, Lionel Messi became the youngest player in Barcelona history to play in 200 Spanish league matches. The gifted Argentinian marked the milestone in style, notching four goals against a shell-shocked Valencia, a mighty haul that has the added benefit of cutting the gap between himself and Ronaldo at the top of the Spanish scoring charts.
Rehhagel to the rescue: Losing to Dortmund was certainly not the ideal way for Hertha Berlin to celebrate their 1,000th Bundesliga match, but what will doubtless further concern their supporters is their failure to pick up a single point since the championship restarted in mid-January. In an attempt to steady the ship, the club from the capital has announced the arrival of German coach Otto Rehhagel, whose CV includes a UEFA European Championship triumph with Greece in 2004, and whose last experience at the helm of a German side was with Kaiserslautern a full twelve years ago.
Courageous champions: Lille, who suffered a painful 5-4 defeat at home to Bordeaux last week, bounced back bravely to secure an important 1-0 win away to Lorient. The winning goal was scored by defender Mathieu Debuchy, a product of Les Dogues’ youth system. “We’re always at our most dangerous when our backs are against the wall,” remarked Rudi Garcia, coach of the defending French champions, whose team not only ended an unwelcome run of 266 minutes without an away goal, but consolidated third place in the Ligue 1 table in the process.
Traffic jam near the top: Just below the leading trio, the French table has a cluttered look about it, with no fewer than four sides level on 39 points. The teams in question experienced quite different results this weekend. Marseille (fourth) were held to a 1-1 draw at Stade Velodrome by Valenciennes and Lyon (fifth) lost 1-0 at Bordeaux, while Saint-Etienne (sixth) made light work of Rennes (seventh), scoring four unanswered goals and rekindling their dreams of European football at the same time.
Nerazzurri nightmare: Following their surprise loss to lowly Novara last Sunday, Inter Milan’s week went from bad to worse this weekend, as Bologna’s resounding 3-0 victory – featuring a double from veteran Marco Di Vaio – made it two consecutive home defeats for I Nerazzurri. Claudio Ranieri’s men have now gone six matches without a win, and have also had to endure the sight of Napoli leapfrogging them in the Serie A table, following their fine 3-0 win away at Fiorentina. Inter’s players will need to drastically improve on these disappointing performances if they are to get anything out of their upcoming Champions League Round-of-16 clash with Marseille on Wednesday.