Juve and Barça ready for show of strength

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The Independent Football

Juventus And Barcelona, the respective leaders of Italy's Serie A and Spain's La Liga - and statistically the best two teams in Europe - face the sternest tests of their domestic campaigns this weekend in fixtures of fresh relevance to English clubs.

Juventus And Barcelona, the respective leaders of Italy's Serie A and Spain's La Liga - and statistically the best two teams in Europe - face the sternest tests of their domestic campaigns this weekend in fixtures of fresh relevance to English clubs.

Sir Alex Ferguson's eyes will be on Juve's match tonight with Milan, whom Manchester United face in the next round of the Champions' League. Jose Mourinho has reason to tune in this evening as Barça, Chelsea's next opponents in Europe, host last year's Spanish title-winners, Valencia.

Juve and Barça have climbed to the top of their domestic tables by amassing 38 points each from 15 matches, a points-per-game ratio exceeding that of any other club in Europe's major leagues. In that sense both are proving themselves to be in superlative form. But Juve's fixture tonight is arguably the bigger game, and the tougher assignment.

Their opponents Milan are second in Italy, on 34 points, in an apparent two-horse race for the title. Valencia, third in Spain on 28 points, are among a quintet of clubs vying for what looks like being a runners-up spot behind the runaway leaders Barcelona.

By winning in the Stadio delle Alpi, Juventus could extend their lead over Milan to seven points. Defeat would mean they enter the Christmas break with their advantage cut to a single point. The form guide gives the visitors the slightest of edges.

Juve needed some questionable refereeing decisions to pip struggling Bologna 1-0 last weekend, having previously come from behind against Lazio and before that accept a 2-2 draw against Internazionale having gone 2-0 up. Milan, in contrast, have won four consecutive games, including trouncing Fiorentina 6-0 last weekend.

Though Milan's Jon Dahl Tomasson is doubtful with a back injury, Carlo Ancelotti should still be able to partner a rejuvenated Hernan Crespo (five goals in six games) with the newly-crowned European Footballer of the Year Andrei Shevchenko up front.

In the other eye-catching fixture in Serie A this weekend Inter, Italy's third surviving Champions' League representatives, host Brescia tomorrow. Inter have won only three league games but have drawn their other 12 to stay unbeaten. Across Europe's top divisions, only Lyon in France and PSV in the Netherlands have also yet to taste domestic defeat. Inter will view lowly Brescia as a good chance for a fourth domestic win and, perhaps, an opportunity to bridge the gulf to the leaders.

On form, Barcelona should maintain the nine-point lead they hold in Spain. They face Valencia with a perfect league record at the Nou Camp, having won seven from seven, scoring 19 goals and conceding just two.

Valencia have won only two of seven away matches, forcing striker Marco Di Vaio to admit that the odds are stacked against his side tonight.

"Barça are the best team in Europe at the moment," he said. "If we try to take them on head-to-head it would be suicidal, so we need to pressure them very hard and stop them playing their usual game."

Fourth-placed Real Madrid meet Racing Santander tonight.

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