SBI’s European weekend preview

Liverpool (Getty Images)

By DAVID MOSSE

It's been a very good week for Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish, who earned a three-year contract as a reward for salvaging this season, and Dalglish hopes to cap it off with a victory over Tottenham at Anfield on Sunday (11 a.m., FSC). With Birmingham and Stoke City gobbling up UEFA Europa League spots, the loser of this weekend's matchup will likely be left without European soccer next year.

For Spurs, a loss would be a massive blow after spending much of the campaign in the top four, and could hasten the departure of manager Harry Redknapp along with several key players. Gareth Bale has been ruled out for the rest of the season with ruptured ankle ligaments suffered in the 1-1 draw with Blackpool last time out, so Tottenham will badly miss his inspiration down the wing.

Steven Gerrard also remains sidelined after surgery for a groin injury, but the Liverpool faithful have a new hero in Luis Suarez, who shined once again in the 5-2 demolition of Fulham this past Monday. Brazilian Lucas Leiva put forth one of his best performances of the season in that match and will look forward to battling countryman Sandro for control of the center of the park Sunday.

Another Brazilian could have the most important part to play, however, as goalkeeper Gomes must avoid any big mistakes for Spurs to stand a chance. Rafael Van der Vaart and Jermain Defoe should be the most dangerous threats for the visitors, while Liverpool counters with Suarez, Dirk Kuyt and the emerging Maxi Rodriguez, who fired a hat-trick against Fulham.

Here's a look ahead to the other important matches in Europe this weekend:

ENGLAND

Manchester City vs. Stoke City, Saturday, 10 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel

Manchester City has waited 35 years, but the Citizens may finally have another addition to the trophy case at the Eastlands. With a place in the UEFA Champions League already secure, City will look to slow upstart Stoke to capture the FA Cup in the final at Wembley Stadium.

Stoke's no pushover, though. The club comes in unbeaten in its last five matches, which includes a 3-1 victory over Arsenal last week. The Potters' 5-0 thrashing of Bolton in the semifinals put everyone on notice that they're legitimate contenders to win their first major trophy since the 1972 League Cup.

The two teams tied their only meeting during the Premier League season, a 1-1 draw at Britannia Stadium on Nov. 27.

Blackburn vs. Manchester United, Saturday, 7:45 a.m., ESPN2

Manchester United stands on the brink of claiming a record 19th league title, surpassing Liverpool in the process. The Red Devils need only one point from their remaining two games and will look to seal the deal at Ewood Park on Saturday against an opponent still fighting for survival. Blackburn is currently three points above the drop zone and would love to come away with a draw.

Expect Steve Kean to field a highly conservative side, which will suit Alex Ferguson just fine. With the UEFA Champions League Final against Barcelona more than two weeks away, Ferguson has no reason to rest players just yet, so Wayne Rooney should be paired up front with Javier Hernandez, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic anchor the back-line in front of Edwin Van der Sar.

Wigan vs. West Ham: Sunday, 11 a.m., FoxSoccer.tv

The relegation battle promises to be more compelling than anything happening in the top half of the table over the final two weeks, and Sunday's clash between Wigan and West Ham certainly won't be lacking for drama. The Hammers are last in the standings, but can probably still avoid the drop by winning their final two games. Wigan would love to pick up all three points as well.

Roberto Martinez's side is three points above West Ham and level with Blackburn and Wolverhampton. Martinez will count on Charles N'Zogbia and Hugo Rodallega to duplicate their lively performances from last week's 1-1 draw at Aston Villa, while Tom Cleverly remains an influential figure in the midfield. West Ham has received a boost from the return of Scott Parker.

SPAIN

Villarreal vs. Real Madrid, Sunday, 3 p.m.

Ever since Real Madrid's chances of capturing another trophy besides the Copa Del Rey came to an end, Cristiano Ronaldo has turned his attention to winning the Pichichi and Golden Boot. Ronaldo has scored seven goals in the past two games to surge ahead of Lionel Messi and is two shy of matching Spain's single-season record of 38 held by both Hugo Sanchez and Telma Zarra.

The Portuguese star will continue his assault in El Madrigal against a Villarreal side that ran out of steam after an impressive first half of the season. Javier Garrido's side has secured Champions League qualification for next year, and Giuseppe Rossi remains a dangerous threat, but given their recent form, it is difficult to imagine Villarreal taking any points off Real Madrid on Sunday.

Real Zaragoza vs. Espanyol, Sunday, 3 p.m.

Espanyol still has a decent chance to claim a Europa League spot, but Mauricio Pochettino knows his side will have a difficult time matching the intensity of Real Zaragoza, which is still fighting for survival. Zaragoza squandered a great opportunity to move level on points with Getafe by allowing Real Sociedad's Mikel Aranburu to snatch a late winner in a 2-1 decision at the Anoeta Stadium.

Getafe suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid last time out and will host Osasuna this weekend, so Javier Aguirre knows his team probably needs a victory over Espanyol to avoid the drop. Fernandez Gabi has proved capable of scoring important goals but goalkeeper Toni Doblas must avoid critical mistakes, while Espanyol will continue to lean on Pablo Osvaldo.

ITALY

Napoli vs. Inter-Milan, Sunday, 2:45 p.m., FSC

Inter-Milan still has a trophy to play for this season after advancing to the final of the Coppa Italia, and the Nerazzuri also showed some pride last week in beating Fiorentina, 3-1, despite knowing AC Milan had already secured the league title. Brazilian youngster Coutinho bagged his first goal from a wonderful free kick and could be given another start in the left side of midfield.

Samuel Eto'o has enjoyed a sensational campaign and will pose the biggest threat for Napoli, while the Azzurri will be minus leading scorer Edinson Cavani after the Uruguayan striker was sent off in the 2-1 loss to Lecce last time out. Walter Mazzarri's side still has a chance to finish in second place and will be very motivated to knock off Inter, but that won't be easy without Cavani.

Chievo vs. Udinese, Sunday, 9 a.m., ESPN3.com

Udinese has one foot in the Champions League after last week's rousing 2-1 victory over Udinese, and the Friulani will be confident of taking care of business against Chievo on Sunday. Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez were both finally fit again and proved to be the difference, as Di Natale found the back of the net twice and Sanchez provided the inspiration for most of the attacks.

Influential Swiss midfielder Gokhan Inler returns after missing out last week due to suspension, while South Americans Cristian Zapata and Mauricio Isla help anchor the back-line. Chievo finds itself in no man's land with two rounds remaining, safe from relegation but out of contention for European soccer next season, so Stefano Pioli's side will be playing for pride the rest of the way.

GERMANY

Hoffenheim vs. Wolfsburg, Saturday, 9:30 a.m.

It's been a miserable campaign for Wolfsburg, and a loss to Hoffenheim this upcoming weekend could result in Felix Magath's side being relegated, which would be the ultimate embarrassment. The Wolves have kept only one clean sheet in their last 14 Bundesliga matches, while Brazilians Diego and Grafite are both struggling. The sale of Edin Dzeko over the winter proved to be devastating.

The good news for Magath is that Hoffenheim finds itself in the middle of the table with nothing to play for, and Grafite has a great track record against 1899. The hosts will count on Ryan Babel and Boris Vukcevic to provide inspiration from the wings, while most of the service is directed towards striker Vedad Ibisevic, as Hoffenheim looks to end this highly uneven season on a positive note.

Freiburg vs. Bayern Leverkusen, Saturday, 9:30 a.m., ESPN3.com

Bayern Leverkusen still has work to do this season heading into the final match against SC Freiburg as a draw will secure direct qualification into the Champions League, so Freiburg boss Robin Dutt will effectively be managing against his own interest. Dutt is set to take command of Leverkusen next season, a just reward for guiding Freiburg to their best campaign since 2001.

It remains to be seen if he will field his strongest lineup, which would include Senegalese striker Papiss Demba Cisse, second in the Bundesliga with 22 goals. Midfielder Jan Rosenthal is a key player as well, but Leverkusen counters with a talented squad featuring the likes of Arturo Vidal and Stefan Kiessling, while Lars Bender will be entrusted with controlling the center of the park.

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Who do you see winning the Liverpool-Tottenham match? What match-up are you most looking forward to seeing? What game outside of England will have your attention this weekend?

Share your thoughts below.

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6 Responses to SBI’s European weekend preview

  1. John says:

    The biggest match of the European weekend is Ajax-Twente which will decide the 2010-11 Eredivise.

  2. erik V says:

    Was going to post the same. Ajax-Twente is going to be a massive game esp after last weeks cup final between the same teams which Twente won in over time. That was one of the best Dutch cup finals in a long time with a great crowd. Which it was on tv in the USA.

  3. Sir Loin says:

    Come On You Spurs

  4. ACS says:

    Hopefully Spurs lose and get eight yellow cards, and Fulham has none this weekend.

  5. Steve C says:

    FYI — Twente/Ajax is on ESPN3.

  6. gonzo says:

    What about Wolverhampton on the razors edge of the drop playing at Sunderland. Win their in. Lose and we come down to a last game of the season for all the marbles.

    Sunderland is beatable at home. Go Wolves!