After another midweek of action where the Premier League dominated the fixture list, Europe’s top leagues return with a host of key games to follow over the coming days.
As ever, there have been a whole host of storylines going on around Ligue 1, LaLiga and beyond over the past few days, with Andre Villas-Boas’ departure from Marseille one of the big talking points in football after a terrible week or so for the club on the south coast of France.
They aren’t the only team having a tough time of matters, though, with Ajax a notable addition to the big names facing mounting problems: record signing Sebastien Haller overlooked by the club when registering players for the Europa League and goalkeeper Andre Onana suspended for 12 months for a doping violation.
Matters will return to on-the-pitch events over the weekend and there are huge clashes of obvious importance to look forward to in the biggest leagues, as well as enormous derbies taking place and battles for Champions League spots heating up.
Here are the major storylines around Europe to watch out for.
Pirlo’s test of title credentials
In Serie A, Juventus provide something of a conundrum this season: they have dominated for so long that it’s great for the league to see other teams capable of challenging, yet there’s real intrigue to see how another legendary player fares after the transition to the dugout.
So far, Andrea Pirlo has as many hits as misses, it’s fair to say. Juve have a decent record at home and have conceded fewer than a goal per game on average, but too many draws leave them seven points off the pace - albeit with a game in hand.
This weekend, the fourth-placed bianconeri host third-place Roma, who themselves are wildly inconsistent on the road with as many wins as defeats. The game won’t definitively decide which of the two clubs can push on to hunt down AC Milan to win the title, but the losers will very much be in a battle to hold onto a Champions League spot, with Napoli and Lazio showing good form of late to close the gap.
Leaders Milan could find themselves kicking off against bottom club Crotone on Sunday in second place, though, as city rivals Inter play Friday night in an intriguing clash with Fiorentina.
Pochettino’s first big test?
Heading into Ligue 1 with arguably the richest club on the planet, PSG, it seems as though it should be plain sailing for Mauricio Pochettino to take his new club (or his old club, from his playing days) to the title and end his wait for silverware.
It hasn’t all gone to plan so far, though, with PSG losing to Lorient just over a week ago - and this time out they face one of France’s biggest fixtures, Le Classique, away to Marseille. Back in September, Marseille won the reverse fixture in a game which saw one goal and five, yes five, red cards late on.
Of course, OM themselves have been in a state of shambles recently, with supporters storming the training ground, manager Villas-Boas criticising the signing of a player against his will, tendering his resignation and then being sacked anyway.
PSG haven’t always been the most stable of clubs themselves, but they seem to be building and settling more now - certainly compared to the tidal wave of destruction Marseille have found themselves in the path of recently.
Lille are three points clear at the top and, even with their opponents in disarray, there’s no guarantee PSG will close the gap this weekend, as Pochettino still searches for a consistent winning combination.
Best of the rest
A couple of intriguing fixtures in LaLiga take place over the weekend, notably manager Marcelino facing former club Valencia with his new side Athletic Club. Marcelino took Los Che to the Copa del Rey final and ended an 11-year wait for silverware for the Mestalla club, but in true Valencia fashion they opted for self-implosion and sacked him soon afterwards.
He took over at Athletic at the start of January and has already beaten Real Madrid and Barcelona to win the Supercopa and he’d no doubt love to further disrupt the season of his old club, who he looked to be on the verge of taking back to their former glories before his dismissal.
Elsewhere, bottom club Huesca face third-place Real Madrid, but Real lost last time out while Huesca won. Will recent form continue, or will quality prevail? Zinedine Zidane needs a result.
In the Bundesliga, five of the top six teams play away from home this week, starting with Bayern Munich on Friday night, and in Portugal it’s third vs. second as Braga host Porto on Sunday.
But the biggest game outside of Europe’s top leagues is the Intercontinental derby, as Turkish Super Lig leaders Fenerbahce face second-place Galatasaray.
It’s one of the most notable and tempestuous derbies in all of European football, a clash which divides the nation as much as the city of Istanbul, and it could well determine the fate of the title this year.
Of course, the relentless and famous atmosphere simply won’t be there this time, with games still behind closed doors, but there’s as much as ever on the line as Fener try to close the gap on their eternal rivals in terms of titles won in their history. And yes, Mesut Ozil is likely to be involved, after making his debut last time out.
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