Premier League action on and off the pitch took precedence in midweek this time around, but come Saturday and Sunday the biggest and best action is to be found on the continent.
There might be no big match-ups on the domestic scene this time, but all over Europe there are crunch encounters which will define title challenges and set the tone for the second half of the season, with their winter breaks fast approaching.
Portugal has a top-three local derby, four of the top five meet in Italy and in Germany, where we begin, the top two meet in one of the great fixtures of the season calendar.
Der Klassiker on a knife-edge
Last week we noted the Covid crisis at Bayern Munich and the ongoing battle to get the full squad vaccinated; they came through the challenge against Arminia, just about, with a one-goal victory enough to put them back on top after Borussia Dortmund had earlier come from behind to hammer Wolfsburg.
The reigning champions head to BVB this time around, still without Joshua Kimmich and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting but with a couple of others back in action. For Dortmund, the big boost was the return of Erling Haaland last week off the bench - it took him just seven minutes to score.
Lothar Matthaus feels that with France Football’s new Striker of the Year Robert Lewandowski, it guarantees goals are on the way.
“We’re really running out of superlatives. For me, they’re the best classic No9s in the world, alongside Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema,” he said. “Lewandowski’s top of the pile, and Haaland will succeed him at some point. Both are incredibly important for their teams. Whevever they’re on the pitch, you get the impression the other players feel they can score out of nothing.”
Bayern lead by just one point, but have scored the most and conceded the fewest in the league. They have also won on their last three trips to play Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park, including the Supercup at the start of this term, and have won six in a row against their rivals.
Julian Nagelsmann’s side aren’t at full capacity, aren’t perhaps playing as freely all game long as he’d like them to and have conceded goals he hasn’t been impressed with, but they also still have a team full of absolute matchwinners when it matters most. Then there’s the small matter of Lewandowski and his immediate response to not winning the Ballon d’Or - the safe bet is on going all-out from this point for the next 12 months to show he should have won it this time, and must do next year.
If Marco Rose can engineer victory for the home team, then the Bundesliga title fight could be the closest and most exciting in years. If Bayern make it seven Klassikers in a row in convincing fashion, cynics will see it as wrapping the title up in the first week of December.
Italy’s Champions League spots skirmish
Take your pick of which to watch in Serie A this weekend, or make it a back-to-back feature: Roma (fifth) host Inter Milan (third) on Saturday evening, before Napoli (first) play Atalanta (fourth) immediately afterwards that night.
Roma are six points outside the top four, it should be noted, so they’ll be looking to claw back ground on the Champions League spots rather than engage a title fight, but for the rest it’s all about keeping, claiming or regaining top spot.
AC Milan, home to bottom club Salernitana, might end up being the big winners ahead of their decisive European match against Liverpool in midweek.
La Real vs Real
Over to Spain and LaLiga sees the current leaders visit the team they recently deposed on Saturday night.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid are ticking nicely, not perfect - especially at the back - but well-rounded, consistent and clinical. Having Vinicius Jr hit the best form of his career so far certainly helps, as does having Karim Benzema reach new levels of greatness.
Real Sociedad have suffered a drop-off though, winning just one of the last four. They need to keep being resilient at home, where they are unbeaten and have conceded only once, but an extra goal or two wouldn’t go amiss - five in seven means the Anoeta faithful haven’t exactly been treated to too many thrillers this season.
Meanwhile, Xavi faces his first big test domestically, with Barcelona hosting Real Betis who are two places and four points above them in the table.
Best of the rest
The biggest clash outside the top five leagues can be found in Portugal, where two of the big three meet in a Lisbon derby and a managerial face-off pits one of the most famous coaching faces of the nation, Jorge Jesus, against one of the most promising young bosses in Europe, Ruben Amorim. The 36-year-old and his reigning champions Sporting CP are second on goal difference, with opponents Benfica four points back in third. In a league of small margins, these encounters can make all the difference to where the title ends up.
And in Turkey’s SuperLig, where another ‘big three’ frequently occupy top spots between them, it’s worth noting that ahead of matchweek 15, none of Besiktas (10th), Galatasaray (seventh) or Fenerbahce (fifth) are in the running right now. Runaway leaders Trabzonspor have won seven in a row and will expect to continue that against mid-table Adana Demirspor on Saturday.
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