Europe: It's the final countdown
Tomorrow's clasico will all but decide whether it's Real or Barça who will claim La Liga but there are equally fascinating title duels being fought out across the continent
Ultimately it will come down to 180 minutes of football. The thin line between an exceptional season and a hugely disappointing one will be walked by Real Madrid and Barcelona in the next two games with tomorrow's Clasico going a long way to deciding the destination of the league title before both sides then battle for their European futures in midweek.
The fixtures could not have been more cruel – Bayern Munich and Chelsea are exactly what Barcelona and Real would have wished on their worst enemies ahead of the Nou Camp encounter.
The German side became the third team in the last month to score a late and crucial goal against Real and now have the advantage in their semi-final. Jose Mourinho, the Real coach, was criticised for picking Fabio Coentrao and then for defending him post-match after the left-back had failed to check a last-minute Philipp Lahm surge that set up Bayern's winner. Coentrao was last summer's €30m surprise signing at Real, on the request of Mourinho, with whom he shares an agent, Jorge Mendes. Meanwhile, Chelsea's 1-0 win over Barcelona left the current European Cup holders with one foot out of the competition.
Neither side can afford to think about next week's second leg as they play for the title but both know this is the fork in the road from which there will be no return. "We have already won this year" said the Barça coach, Pep Guardiola, but he knows a World Club Cup and European and Spanish Super Cups will not compensate for missing out on La Liga and the Champions League.
Real will remain one point clear of their rivals if they lose tomorrow but of their remaining four games they have to face top-eight sides Seville at home and Athletic Bilbao away, giving Barcelona reason to believe they could slip up again. For Barça only a win at the Nou Camp will realistically keep them in the title race. If they can pick up the three points and then negotiate trips to Rayo Vallecano and Betis as well as visits from local rivals Espanyol and Malaga, who are in contention for a Champions League place, any blip from Real would hand them the league.
Barça have not lost at home in 34 games, while in 10 Clasicos since arriving at Real, Mourinho has won just twice. With 24 hours' less rest behind them, the Catalan side come into the game in worse shape than their rivals. But with the four-point cushion and one day less to prepare for their Champions League semi-final second leg, it is Real who are more likely to rest players.
"Would you mind if you won the league but failed to beat Barcelona in either of the two league games?" Mourinho was asked earlier in the season. "No," was his unflinching reply. Nevertheless, his approach to the game will be fascinating. He will not have missed out on the opportunity to remind his players how effective Chelsea's game-plan was this week. It is the way he has demanded his side play against Barça but dressing-room resistance to such a back-foot approach has led to the coach pulling in the opposite direction to the team. Last season's 2-0 home defeat in the Champions League semi-final first leg just days after Real had beaten Barcelona in the Spanish Cup final was blamed by some in the squad on Mourinho's cautious tactics.
With a draw being enough for Real tomorrow there may be greater concessions from Cristiano Ronaldo and Co – providing Mourinho can persuade them to accept, as he has, that finishing top after 38 matches matters far more than Clasico bragging rights.
Top of Primera Liga
Real Madrid 33/27/4/2/107/29/85
Germany: Bayern left in the shade by Dortmund
Jose Mourinho speaks several languages, perhaps few quite as well as derision. Mourinho talked almost with contempt about the non-title race at the top of the Bundesliga following Real Madrid's 2-1 first leg semi-final defeat to Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. In comparison with most leagues in Europe, he actually has a point.
Whatever Bayern go on to achieve in Europe this season, and the safe money is still on Real to emerge victorious from the second leg in the Bernabeu on Wednesday, their league campaign has been a major disappointment for a club side who sit alongside the very biggest the continent has to offer.
Borussia Dortmund, Germany's reigning champions, have been the embodiment of consistency for most of the season. On Saturday they defeated local rivals Schalke 04 to move eight points clear of Bayern. Dortmund have lost only three times this season. For Bayern that is more than double. Indeed, Dortmund's form has been such this season that they lead third-placed Schalke by 17 points with three games of the Bundesliga season remaining.
Dortmund face Borussia Mönchengladbach (currently fourth) at home tomorrow evening. By then Jürgen Klopp's side could have retained the title if Bayern have not won at Werder Bremen (who sit eighth). Even if Bayern do win, a Dortmund victory at the Westfalenstadion would see them crowned champions again.
Top of the Bundesliga
B Dortmund 31/22/6/3/69/23/72
Bayern M 31/20/4/7/69/20/64
B M'gl'bach 31/16/8/7/46/22/56
Italy: Juventus and Milan fight to the finish
Two huge clubs going into the straight neck and neck means Italy has the most exciting finish of all the major European leagues. Just one point separates Juventus and Milan with six games of the Serie A campaign remaining. Only one goal separates them in terms of goal difference (and this time it is a slender advantage to Milan).
Juventus, after 32 games, have yet to lose a game (although they have drawn on 14 occasions.) They have perhaps their hardest remaining fixture of the season on Sunday, when they face Roma, who are still pushing for third, but Juve's revival has been dramatic and unexpected, given their successive seventh placed finishes in Serie A in the previous two seasons.
Much of that has been put down to the arrival and ambition of new coach Antonio Conte. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has credited Conte, a member of the great Juventus team of the late '90s, with bringing a new mentality to the side.
The Milan coach, Massimiliano Allegri, has already stated the title will go to the team with the steadiest nerves, so there is no shortage of mind-games going on in Italy. The reigning champions were unsettled by their Champions League exit to Barcelona, only returning to winning ways against Chievo last week. The big worry for Milan is that their second last game is the derby against Internazionale. On those highly-charged 90 minutes may well rest the destination of the title.
Top of Serie A
France: Wobbling Montpellier try to hang on
Now is most definitely not the time to wobble but Montpellier, the surprise club of the season (and France regularly has such a club, with four different side winning the last four Ligue One titles) suffered such a fate on Sunday night. They lost to L'Orient, who had won just one of their last 16 games (Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal, got the second goal). That followed Montpellier beating Marseilles 3-1 earlier that week. Paris St-Germain, with their pots of money, could then only draw with Auxerre, currently bottom, to leave themselves two points behind the league leaders.
It is a topsy-turvy world in French football and with six games to go it's worth keeping an eye on Joe Cole at Lille. The northern side might have additional mental strength to the two clubs above them, having won the title last season.
What remains pleasing is the continued form of the little man in France. Montpellier, under coach René Girard, came 14th last season and have an annual budget of just €36m (£29.5m). Compare that to the wealth of PSG, owned by Qatar Sports Investments, not to mention having Carlo Ancelotti at the helm.
Montpellier face Valenciennes (12th) tomorrow and have the chance to pull away from PSG, who do not play until the following day. Lille also play tomorrow, at Dijon. If they can cut the mustard, the champions would be within two points of PSG by the time they kick off.
What could be significant is the penultimate fixture of the season when Montpellier face Lille at home.
Top of Ligue 1
Paris St-Ger 32/18/10/4/57/34/64
Netherlands: Ajax thrive on Cruyff row fall-out
It says something that Ajax have so far come through a season of bitter in-fighting to lead the race for the Eredivisie title by six points with a superior goal difference to their nearest rivals AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord. It is also worth noting the kind of top-six fight that no longer happens in much of Europe. Seven points separate Ajax and sixth-placed Heerenveen and more impressive still is the gap from AZ in second to sixth, which stands at just one point.
It has been a stormy period for what those outside the Netherlands judge as the country's biggest club. Frank de Boer is Ajax's seventh manager in seven years, and perhaps unsurprisingly, last season's Ered-ivisie title was their first through that period.
Such managerial instability has been mirrored in the boardroom during the current campaign. Johan Cruyff took on the rest of the Ajax board and their planned appointment of his long-term adversity Louis van Gaal as general manager. Resignations followed, notably of technical director Danny Blind, before the departure of Cruyff himself, who wanted to give more power to former players like Dennis Bergkamp, the current assistant manager.
Cruyff's exit has helped De Boer, who won the European Cup with Ajax in 1995. His men were eight points off the pace at the start of February, but with four games left to go this season, most rival managers concede the title is Ajax's.
Top of the Eredivisie
AZ Alkmaar 30/17/7/6/60/32/58
FC Twente 30/16/9/5/75/36/57
Portugal: Porto head for champagne again
Only twice in the last nine seasons have Porto not been champions in Portugal. Unsurprisingly, they head into the closing stages of the season with another league title in their sights. Again, their record has been formidable, having dropped only four points at the Estadio do Dragao. They have hardly proved push-overs on their travels either, losing only once so far this season, and there are only four games to go. Perhaps Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich should have checked the comparative merits of Portuguese football before coughing up £13.3m in compensation for Andre Villas-Boas.
At least this year, Porto cannot ease up in the home straight. Benfica (who have lost just three times) remain within four points of the champions and then there is Braga, five points off the pace, who have crumbled at such a crucial stage of the season. A side who had lost once in 18 games, have gone down three times in the last four. Crucially their last two defeats, each time by the odd goal, has come at the hands of their nearest rivals, first Benfica, and more recently Porto.
For Porto, the final four games offer a comfortable run in and only the penultimate fixture (home to Sporting Lisbon) may present a problem. Hulk has not been quite so, dare we say it, incredible, but has still hit 10 league goals. Intriguingly, Jorge Jesus (remember him?) was in charge at Braga (who finished second) before taking over at Benfica (second again). That may give a spur for the side he led to defeat against Chelsea in the Champion League.
Top of the Liga
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