European Weekend Preview: Real face tough test at Atletico; van Persie and Man United visit Arsenal; and more

RealAtletico (Zimbio)

By JUSTIN FERGUSON

Things are not getting any easier for Real Madrid.

After a 4-1 first leg loss at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semifinals, Real return to Madrid this weekend—but not to the comforts of the Bernabeu. No, Los Blancos will take the field this Saturday at the Vicente Calderon against a crosstown rival determined to beat Real for the first time in 14 years.

Following a brief dip in form that allowed Real to take control of second place in La Liga, Atletico are currently on a five-match undefeated run. And while a recent loss to Real Sociedad and draw with Valencia have kept it from perfection, Atletico’s home record this season has joined been one of the world’s best.

While a spot in next season’s Champions League is almost guaranteed for Atletico, a win over Real this Saturday would draw the two Madrid clubs level in the race for second in La Liga. Real will have to grab at least three goals three days later to stay alive in their semifinal battle with Dortmund, so Atletico could get a perfect opportunity to get their first derby win of the century against their rival.

The two sides meet once more next month in the Copa del Rey final, a competition Atletico has not won since their 1995-96 double.

“(The recent derby record) is history,” Atletico manager Diego Simeone said earlier this week. “And history has to change at some moment…on our side there is enthusiasm, excitement and expectation. This is an opportunity. Words count for little. The only thing that counts is the facts, and the facts meaning winning the game.”

In England, two historic rivals meet in a match that could have a huge impact on the Champions League fate of the home side. But the hype leading up to Sunday’s Arsenal-Manchester United clash has not been on the Gunners’ fight for a spot in Europe next season but rather the return of Robin van Persie to his former home stadium.

Although there have been reports of disapproval from their supporters and some players, Arsenal plan to give Man United the traditional guard of honor before kickoff at Emirates Stadium. The Gunners will applaud the newly crowned champions, including former captain van Persie, as they take the field on Sunday.

The Dutch striker left Arsenal in controversial fashion during last summer’s transfer window, questioning the club’s title ambitions as he made his way to Old Trafford. Van Persie netted a first-half hat trick in Monday’s title-clinching win over Aston Villa.

Arsenal enter Sunday’s match one point ahead of Chelsea and two points ahead of Tottenham Hotspur, who both have played one less match than Arsenal. The Gunners will be without striker Olivier Giroud after the Football Association rejected his appeal of the red card he received towards the end of last week’s 1-0 win at Fulham. Giroud, who has scored 17 goals in his first season at Arsenal, will most likely be replaced by Lukas Podolski.

Here is a closer look at the rest of the weekend’s top action in Europe:

ENGLAND

After a thrilling 2-1 road leg win over FC Basel in the Europa League semifinals, Chelsea return to Stamford Bridge this weekend to face Swansea City. Every league match from now until the end of the season is crucial in Chelsea’s fight to make it back to the Champions League, and revenge over the Swans could be an added boost for the Blues on Sunday. The last time these two sides met, January’s Capital One Cup semifinal, Chelsea were held off by host Swansea on the way to the Welsh club’s first major trophy win. The scoreless draw—Swansea had won 2-0 in the first leg at Stamford Bridge—ended in bizarre fashion when Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was sent off for appearing to kick a Swansea ball boy that was trying to waste time for his side. Swansea also made sure Chelsea left Liberty Stadium without points in their earlier league meeting, when Pablo Hernandez scored a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw. Chelsea have not defeated Swansea since September 2011’s 4-1 win at Stamford Bridge, one of the Swans’ first matches in the Premier League.

On Saturday, relegation-threatened Wigan Athletic will look to repeat their shock 1-0 win against Tottenham from earlier this season. While the Latics prepare for a return to Wembley for the FA Cup Final in a few weeks, they currently sit three points back from safe Aston Villa in this season’s relegation battle. If Wigan can get three more points against Spurs, who need all the points they can get in their race for a Champions League spot, they will be level with Villa entering the final four matches of the season. Manager Roberto Martinez will have to do some major lineup reshuffling before Saturday’s match against Tottenham, who are coming off of a huge 3-1 win over Manchester City last weekend. Five Latics are out for the match at DW Stadium, and Ben Watson, the hero of November’s win at White Hart Lane, is listed as doubtful.

Here are this weekend’s matches in the Premier League:

Saturday:
Everton vs. Fulham
Southampton vs. West Bromwich Albion
Stoke City vs. Norwich City
Wigan Athletic vs. Tottenham
Newcastle United vs. Liverpool

Sunday:
Reading vs. QPR
Chelsea vs. Swansea City
Arsenal vs. Manchester United

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SPAIN

While the Madrid derby will command the most attention in La Liga this weekend, Sunday’s match between Real Sociedad and Valencia will surely have the most drama. Sociedad are coming off a disappointing scoreless draw at Osasuna that allowed Valencia, undefeated in their last five matches, to move just two points behind them for the last Champions League spot in Spain. Valencia lost to Sociedad 5-2 in December when second-leading scorer Jonas received a red card in the first half. Although Sociedad’s draw last weekend was not ideal, it extended their undefeated run in La Liga to 14 matches. If the home side can keep that run going Sunday, they will hold onto fourth place with five matches remaining. If not, Valencia will take control of the coveted Champions League qualifying spot.

Like Real, Barcelona are coming off of a terrible trip to Germany. The Catalans were soundly beaten 4-0 at Bayern Munich on Tuesday, making next week’s return leg at Camp Nou seem like just a formality for the German champions. And while they are out of the Copa del Rey and more than likely out of Champions League contention, Barcelona still have a chance to get their hands on a title soon. If they take care of business at bottom-half Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and Atletico beat Real later that day, the league title will return to Barcelona. The Catalans demolished Bilbao, who are now winless in their last three matches, by a score of 5-1 in their meeting in December.

Here are this weekend’s matches in La Liga:

Friday:
Rayo Vallecano vs. Osasuna

Saturday:
Levante vs. Celta Vigo
Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona
Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid
Real Zaragoza vs. Mallorca

Sunday:
Espanyol vs. Granada
Malaga vs. Levante
Real Valladolid vs. Sevilla
Real Sociedad vs. Valencia

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GERMANY

Despite a disappointing stretch that included a 9-2 loss to Bayern Munich and a 5-1 loss to Hannover 96, Hamburg have won back-to-back matches are back in the five-club race for the last two European spots in the Bundesliga. On Sunday, Hamburg travel to Schalke, who currently hold that coveted fourth spot in the league table. Schalke lost 1-0 at Eintracht Frankfurt last week, allowing Hamburg and Borussia Monchengladbach to move just two points behind in the battle for Champions League qualification. Hamburg defeated Schalke 3-1 in their league match earlier this season.

Meanwhile, Bayern Munich follow up their 4-0 Champions League win over Barcelona with a Saturday match against fifth-place Freiburg. While they have already clinched the Bundesliga title and still have the DFB-Pokal Final to look forward to, Bayern have managed to finish their league campaign strongly. The champions have scored 20 goals in their last four Bundesliga matches, and Freiburg will try to do what many domestic and continental clubs have done this season—slow Bayern down. Freiburg, who have never made it to the Champions League, are behind Schalke by only one point.

Here are this weekend’s matches in the Bundesliga:

Friday:
Greuther Furth vs. Hannover 96

Saturday:
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Werder Bremen
Bayern Munich vs. Freiburg
Augsburg vs. Stuttgart
Hoffenheim vs. Nurnberg
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Borussia Dortmund

Sunday:
Mainz vs. Eintracht Frankfurt
Schalke 04 vs. Hamburg

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ITALY

Just like Barcelona, Juventus could clinch their league title this weekend with a little help—but second-place Napoli are not facing a team like Atletico Madrid. If Juventus defeat cross-town rival Torino on Sunday and Napoli fail to record all three points against last-place US Pescara on Saturday, the Scudetto will officially stay at Juve. While Juventus are unbeaten in 13 straight matches against Torino, a streak that stretches almost two decades, Pescara have not won since early January, making a title celebration seem unlikely this weekend. Even if Napoli slip up at Pescara this weekend, they will still have a good-sized lead over AC Milan, who face Catania this weekend.

Fiorentina will look to keep the pressure on Milan for the final Champions League spot this weekend in a trip to bottom-half Sampdoria. The fourth-place Viola, who trail Milan by one in the battle for the last Champions League spot, are coming off of last week’s 4-3 win over Torino that was a little too close for comfort—Fiorentina blew a three-goal lead before Romulo delivered the three points in the dying moments of the match. Fiorentina will have to be better this weekend to win against Sampdoria, who are just a few points from the magic number that will ensure survival in Serie A. The 15th-place Blucherati, last season’s promotion playoff winner, were widely predicted to be locks for relegation back down to Serie B.

Here are this weekend’s matches in Serie A:

Saturday:
Atalanta vs. Bologna
Cagliari vs. Udinese
US Pescara vs. Napoli

Sunday:
AS Roma vs. Siena
Chievo Verona vs. Genoa
Palermo vs. Inter Milan
Parma vs. Lazio
Sampdoria vs. Fiorentina
Torino vs. Juventus
AC Milan vs. Catania

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FRANCE

Paris Saint-Germain can also clinch their league title this weekend with a win and a little help from the opponents of their closest competition. Before PSG take on relegation-threatened Evian Thonon on Sunday, second-place Marseille travel to seventh-place Lorient, a side that defeated OM 3-0 in December. If OM fail to record all three points against Lorient, who have only lost once at home this season, and PSG win on Sunday, the Parisians will have their first Ligue 1 title in 19 years.

Before any title drama can happen on Sunday, a major matchup in terms of Champions League qualifying will come first. Saint Etienne moved back into fourth place this week with a 4-2 win over Ajaccio, and now they turn their attention to erasing their two point deficit to Rhone rivals Lyon. OL have snapped back from a tough run of form with back-to-back wins. Manager Remi Garde will have to find a plan to slow down dynamic Etienne forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored twice in the win over Ajaccio earlier this week. The young Gabonese star has scored 12 goals in his last 12 league matches.

Here are this weekend’s matches in Ligue 1:

Friday:
Lille vs. Sochaux

Saturday:
Lorient vs. Marseille
Ajaccio vs. Montpellier
Bastia vs. Toulouse
Bordeaux vs. Stade de Reims
Brest vs. Stade Rennes
Valenciennes vs. Nancy

Sunday:
Lyon vs. Saint Etienne
Nice vs. Troyes
Evian Thonon vs. PSG

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Which European matches are you looking forward to the most this weekend? Think Atletico will snap their long winless streak against Real on Saturday? How do you think van Persie will do in his first match back at the Emirates? See any shakeups in the Champions League qualification battles across Europe top leagues? Do you think Barcelona, Juventus or PSG clinch their league titles this weekend?

Share your comments below.

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