BY JUSTIN FERGUSON
Two intense rivalries and a 1 vs. 2 clash headline a massive weekend in European soccer.
We start with the always heated North London Derby, where Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur will battle for crucial league positioning on top of the usual local bragging rights. Third-place Spurs come into the rivalry match with an 11-match unbeaten streak in league play. Fifth-place Arsenal, a 5-2 winner of the derby match at the Emirates earlier this season, bounced back from two tough cup losses to Blackburn and Bayern Munich with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa last weekend.
The battle to keep an eye on in Sunday’s match will be between Gareth Bale and Carl Jenkinson. Bale continued his blistering run of form Monday, further establishing his case for PFA Player of the Year, by leading Tottenham to victory over West Ham United with two goals. With Bacary Sagna ruled out of action, the task of slowing down the red-hot Welshman will fall to Jenkinson, Arsenal’s young right back.
On Saturday, the eyes of the soccer world will be on Madrid as Real hosts rival Barcelona in La Liga action. Although the visitors hold a massive lead in the league table, this weekend’s match feels like a must-win for Barcelona. Real crushed Barcelona earlier this week in Copa del Rey action, ending the Catalans’ hopes of repeating as cup champions.
But what kind of starting lineup will Jose Mourinho trot out for this weekend’s El Clasico? Los Blancos will have to make a quick turnaround after the match as they travel to Manchester United for a winner-take-all return leg in Champions League action. With a 16-point deficit to Barcelona in league play and a big continental match in a few days, how will Real Madrid play its biggest rival?
The stacked European weekend will kick off with a match with the biggest league title implications, Juventus at Napoli. Juve, who holds a six-point lead over Napoli in the league table, got a great bounceback win last Sunday against Siena. Hosts Napoli will enter the clash with some mediocre form, having drawn its last three Serie A matches in the midst of a shocking Europa League exit. Now that the Scudetto is the only trophy left in Napoli’s reach, look for the hosts to put all of its effort in cutting the defending champions’ lead in half on Friday.
Here is a closer look at the rest of the matches in major European action this weekend:
League-leading Manchester United will host 12th-place Norwich City in one final match before Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Old Trafford next Tuesday. Much like Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson will have some interesting lineup decisions to make in his club’s match on Sunday. Norwich City is unbeaten in its last four Premier League matches, including last weekend’s dramatic upset of Everton. With rival Manchester City expected to win against relegation candidate Aston Villa on Monday, United cannot afford to look ahead to Real if it wants to keep the 12-point league intact.
Chelsea will face an intriguing opponent in West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. While this match is very important to the club’s Champions League qualification hopes, the story heading into the match will be Stamford Bridge’s reaction to Rafael Benitez. The interim manager blasted a group of Chelsea fans after the FA Cup win over Middlesbrough on Wednesday and confirmed that he will not return for another season. While Benitez told the media that he is confident that he will finish the season as Chelsea manager, a poor result against the seventh-place Baggies would make things even more interesting in West London–both Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo’s last league matches were losses to West Brom.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s EPL fixtures:
Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion
Everton vs. Reading
Manchester United vs. Norwich City
Southampton vs. QPR
Stoke City vs. West Ham United
Sunderland vs. Fulham
Swansea City vs. Newcastle United
Wigan Athletic vs. Liverpool
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal
Aston Villa vs. Manchester City
While the first and third place clubs in La Liga battle each other on Saturday, the second and fourth clubs will square off on Sunday. After a loss last week at Real Betis, Malaga is barely hanging onto fourth in the league. Valencia and Real Sociedad could jump over the club if it does not post a result against second-place Atletico. The visiting Colchoneros, who are coming off of a wild second leg in their Copa del Rey semifinal with Sevilla, defeated Malaga 2-1 in their league meeting earlier this season.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s La Liga fixtures:
Getafe vs. Real Zaragoza
Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
Deportivo La Coruna vs. Rayo Vallecano
Osasuna vs. Athletic Bilbao
Valencia vs. Levante
Granada vs. Mallorca
Espanyol vs. Real Valladolid
Malaga vs. Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad vs. Real Betis
Sevilla vs. Celta Vigo
Bayern Munich, now 17 points ahead of second-place Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga table, is in a perfect position to extend its commanding lead against relegation favorite Hoffenheim on Sunday. The German giants will face back-to-back bottom half clubs before their return leg with Arsenal in the Champions League. Bayern is undefeated in eleven road matches this season and has only dropped two points away from home.
Dortmund and third-place Bayer Leverkusen are both coming off of draws last weekend, keeping their race for second extremely tight. The defending champions host European hopeful Hannover 96 this weekend, a team they drew 1-1 with earlier this season. Leverkusen will also host a team it drew with earlier in the season on Saturday, 11th place Stuttgart.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s Bundesliga fixtures:
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
Borussia Dortmund vs. Hannover 96
Hamburg vs. Greuther Furth
Nurnberg vs. Freiburg
Wolfsburg vs. Schalke
Werder Bremen vs. Augsburg
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Stuttgart
Hoffenheim vs. Bayern Munich
Dusseldorf vs. Mainz
The Saturday match in Serie A will be one to watch as third-place Lazio visits fourth-place AC Milan. The hosts, who are still undefeated in 2013, can move up to that final Champions League spot with a victory at home. Lazio got its first win in six league matches last weekend against US Pescara, ending a slide that included losses to two relegation candidates. Milan lost 3-2 to Lazio in the first league meeting, back during the club’s lackluster start to the season.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s Serie A fixtures:
Napoli vs. Juventus
AC Milan vs. Lazio
Torino vs. Palermo
Bologna vs. Cagliari
Catania vs. Inter Milan
Fiorentina vs. Chievo Verona
Sampdoria vs. Parma
Siena vs. Atalanta
US Pescara vs. Udinese
AS Roma vs. Genoa
First-place PSG hits the road this weekend to take on relegation-threatened Stade de Reims. After back-to-back 2-0 wins over third-place Marseille in Ligue 1 and Coupe de France action, the capital club will turn its attention to widening the gap between itself and second-place Lyon. PSG hosts Valencia in the second leg of their UCL matchup on Wednesday, so some squad rotation against a club near the bottom will most likely be on the cards.
OL will also be on the road this weekend when it faces midtable side Brest. The club currently holds a five-point lead over third-place Marseille, who it faces next week in a major league showdown.
Here is the full list of this weekend’s Ligue 1 fixtures:
Montpellier vs. Stade Rennes
Stade de Reims vs. PSG
Bastia vs. Ajaccio
Lorient vs. Valenciennes
Sochaux vs. Nancy
St Etienne vs. Nice
Toulouse vs. Evian Thonon
Brest vs. Lyon
Marseille vs. Troyes
Lille vs. Bordeaux
Which European matches are you looking forward to the most this weekend? Who do you think will emerge victorious in the North London Derby? Think Real Madrid can beat Barcelona twice in one week?
Share your comments below.