By IAN HOLLIDAY
It was an excellent week for the defending European Cup champions. Inter Milan's good fortune began on Tuesday with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Bayern Munich to advance to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Then on Thursday, the quarterfinal draw handed Inter a date with Schalke, easily the weakest club remaining in the competition. Finally, this weekend brought a pair of 1-0 results that brought the club within two points of archrivals AC Milan for the Serie A lead.
After a surprise loss for the Rossoneri on Saturday at Palermo, Inter only needed a win over relegation-threatened Lecce to set up a winner-takes-first-place battle with its Milan derby rivals when the league returns from international break on April 3. Giampaolo Pazzini's 52nd-minute winner did just that.
In other European action:
Manchester United extended its Premier League lead with a 1-0 win over Bolton on an 88th-minute Dimitar Berbatov strike. United were fortunate to get the result, especially after defender Jonny Evans was sent off in the 76th minute for a tackle that sent American midfielder Stuart Holden to the hospital for stitches. Arsenal's 2-2 draw at West Brom allowed the Red Devils to go five points clear of the Gunners at the top of the league.
In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid scored matching 2-1 victories on Saturday over Getafe and Atletico Madrid, respectively, while Villarreal went ahead of Valencia on goal differential in the race for third with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.
Elsewhere, Hamburg recovered from its 6-0 loss to Bayern Munich last week to score six goals of its own this week at home to Cologne, and Lille used a draw between closest competitors Lyon and Stade Rennes to extend its Ligue 1 lead to 4 points.
Here is a rundown of all the weekend scores from Europe's top leagues:
Chelsea's mid-season doldrums ended a while ago, but it took the club until this week to recover its position in the Premier League table. The Blues' 2-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday brought them back into the league's automatic champions league qualification spots for the first time in 2011. It's unlikely the club can make up nine points on Manchester United in its nine remaining league games, but it will be interesting to see whether Chelsea makes a push for second or gets stuck in a three-way fight for two champions league spots with Man City and Tottenham.
Sunderland 0, Liverpool 2
Chelsea 2, Manchester City 0
Tottenham 0, West Ham United 0
Aston Villa 0, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
Blackburn 2, Blackpool 2
Manchester United 1, Bolton 0
Stoke City 4, Newcastle United 0
West Bromwich Albion 2, Birmingham City 1
Everton 2, Fulham 1
The standing complaint about La Liga is that the continued dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid makes it non-competitive and boring. This season, that stratification of the table has extended to the race for third as well. After this weekend's results, Villarreal and Valencia are tied on points with 54, 11 better than their closest competitor Espanyol. To get to a La Liga race that involves more than two teams, one must look all the way down to fifth in the table, where five teams are within reasonable striking distance of a Europa League place. Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao currently hold the league's two spots (one more than usual because of the Barca v. Real Madrid Copa Del Rey final), followed closely by Sevilla on 42 points, Atletico Madrid on 39 and Mallorca on 38.
Deportivo la Coruna 0, Levante 1
Hercules 0, Osasuna 4
Malaga 2, Espanyol 0
Racing Santander 2, Real Sociedad 1
Sporting Gijon 1, Almeria 0
Athletic Bilbao 0, Villarreal 1
Valencia 0, Sevilla 1
Mallorca 1, Real Zaragoza 0
Barcelona 2, Getafe 1
Atletico Madrid 1, Real Madrid 2
AC Milan's loss to Palermo benefitted not only Inter, but Napoli, which won its match Sunday 2-1 over Cagliari on two goals from Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani. The result leaves Napoli with 59 points, just three shy of Milan's 62. If the club wins its April 3 match against Lazio, it's likely to leapfrog the loser of that week's Milan derby, setting up the potential for a three-way title race in Serie A, and that's not including Udinese, which still hasn't lost since January and is only six points off the pace in fourth.
Fiorentina 2, AS Roma 2
Bari 1, Chievo 2
Bologna 1, Genoa 1
Inter Milan 1, Lecce 0
Juventus 2, Brescia 1
Sampdoria 0, Parma 1
Udinese 2, Catania 0
Napoli 2, Cagliari 1
Lazio 1, Cesena 0
Palermo 1, AC Milan 0
Slowly but surely, Borussia Dortmund is losing ground to Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga title race. After drawing 1-1 with Mainz on Saturday, Dortmund is now only seven points ahead of Leverkusen, which defeated Schalke 2-0. With only seven games left in the Bundesliga season, it's unlikely Dortmund will drop enough points for their competitors to make up the difference, especially since the two clubs don't meet again in the league this season.
Bayer Leverkusen 2, Schalke 04 0
VfB Stuttgart 1, VfL Wolfsburg 1
Eintracht Frankfurt 2, St. Pauli 1
Hamburg 6, FC Cologne 2
Hannover 96 2, Hoffenheim 0
Nurnberg 1, Werder Bremen 3
SC Freiburg 1, Bayern Munich 2
Borussia Dortmund 1, Mainz 1
Borussia Moenchengladbach 0, Kaiserslautern 1
What was once an exceptionally tight Ligue 1 table has become more stratified in recent weeks. Where once teams one through seven were separated by five points or so, there are now 10 points between first and fifth, and another six between fifth and sixth. Lille, Marseille, Stade Rennes, and Lyon have established themselves as title contenders with 55, 51, 50, and 49 points, respectively. Sixth-placed St. Etienne and the clubs below its 39 points have established themselves as also-rans. Stuck in no man's land on 45 points is Paris St. Germain, which could fall back to the pack with losses in any of its next three games, including one at home to Lyon on April 16.
AS Monaco 0, AS Nancy Lorraine 1
Caen 2, Arles 0
Marseille 2, Paris St. Germain 1
AJ Auxerre 2, Sochaux 0
Brest 1, Lille 2
Lorient 0, St. Etienne 0
Montpellier 1, Lens 4
Toulouse 1, Nice 1
Valenciennes 2, Bordeaux 2
Lyon 1, Stade Rennes 1
What did you think of this week's results? Surprised by Inter's recent good luck? Which title race looks most interesting to you?