We return this weekend from the international break with about a quarter of the European soccer season to go, and though the title races in Italy, Germany and, perhaps, England look to be sewn up, a few crucial matches will decide the champions in both Spain and France. And for those who enjoy watching the fight for the UEFA Champions League, the good news is that the races are still pretty tight across the big five leagues.
In France, any one of three teams could finish the season as Ligue 1 champ. Those enjoying the see-saw battle for the top will certainly look forward to first-place Paris Saint-Germain’s visit to third-place Marseille on Sunday, but not before second-place Lyon faces a tricky trip to Guingamp on Saturday. Just two points separate the top three here, while fourth-place AS Monaco and fifth-place St. Etienne -- which square-off on Friday -- aren’t far behind, either.
Soccer on TV: Weekend Schedule
Serial watchers of Spain’s La Liga will no doubt expect No. 1 Barcelona and No. 2 Real Madrid to pick up three points from their respective clashes away to Celta Vigo and at home to Granada this weekend, although Celta, which beat Barca at home earlier this season, should prove to be the trickier opponent. Red-hot Valencia, just four points behind Real in third, faces perhaps the most interesting clash of the weekend at home to mercurial Villiarreal on Sunday. Spanish champ Atletico Madrid, currently fourth, should have no problems at last-place Cordoba on Saturday, while Sevilla must pick up three points against Athetlic Bilbao to stand any chance of eking into the UCL.
Until Chelsea stumbles, it’s all about the UCL places in England right now. Without question, the headlining clash is third-place Arsenal versus fifth-place Liverpool on Saturday. Arsene Wenger’s Gunners are the Premier League’s hottest team, having won six-in-a-row, while Liverpool is its second-hottest team, having won five-in-a-row before losing 2-1 at home to Manchester United last weekend. The victor of this game could effectively decide whether or not we have a race for the top four this year. Sixth-place Southampton, which faces a trip to bumbling Everton, might have something to say about that, but does anyone really think Ronald Koeman’s Saints can make it into Europe’s top competition?
In Italy, which only has three UCL spots, seven points separate second-place AS Roma from sixth-place Fiorentina, with Lazio, Sampdoria and Napoli wedged in between. Fifth-place Napoli must get at least a draw from its trip to Roma this Saturday in order to stand any chance of finishing in the top three. Both clubs are in poor form, however, having each won just one of their last six games in the league. The other key match-up in Italy on Saturday is Fiorentina vs. Sampdoria; the loser can more or less kiss their UCL hopes goodbye.
Depending on what happens in those games, third-place Lazio could be the biggest beneficiary of all, provided it comes away from a trip to Cagliari with three points. The Roman club absolutely should: Lazio, thanks to the sensational form of its midfield—and particularly, Felipe Anderson—over the last month, is Serie A’s hottest team with six wins in a row. The Sardinians, meanwhile, are the league’s joint-leakiest defense, an honor it shares with bankrupt and relegation-bound Parma.
Finally, in Germany, all the talk this week has been about Saturday’s Der Klassiker between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Well, don’t believe the hype, because this year’s contest is essentially meaningless, with a whopping 31 points separating first-place Bayern from 10th-place Dortmund. A far more interesting option is Hoffenheim v Borussia Monchengladbach. Though ten points separate these teams, a win would help seventh-place Hoffenheim close in on a Europa League spot, while three points would all but guarantee a UCL place for third-place ‘Gladbach.