By JUSTIN FERGUSON
In recent years, first vs. second clashes in La Liga have usually been installments in the legendary El Clasico rivalry. Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid have had a stranglehold of the league table, finishing in the top two spots eight of their last nine seasons.
But this season, there is a serious threat to the Clasico rivals’ dual reign.
Atletico Madrid will host defending champions Barcelona this Saturday as the second-place team in La Liga. The two teams, who separated only by goal differential, lead Real Madrid by five points heading into the end of the first half of the league schedule and will fight to take full control of the top spot.
The match will take place at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, where Atletico have won all nine of their league matches this season. Opponents there have been outscored 33-6 by Atletico’s high-powered offense, which is spearheaded by league Golden Boot leader Diego Costa.
But the last team to defeat Atletico at home was Barcelona, who won there 2-1 late last season and drew 1-1 in a Spanish Super Cup leg earlier this season — the road goal giving Barcelona the cup after a scoreless match at Camp Nou. Barcelona’s red-hot offense, which has scored 16 goals in their last five league matches, will receive a boost this weekend with the La Liga return of superstar forward Lionel Messi, who scored twice in his team’s 4-0 Copa del Rey victory over Getafe earlier this week.
In Italy, fifth-place Hellas Verona will look to wrap up their strong first half of the Serie A campaign with a home match against third-place Napoli. Veteran striker Luca Toni and Hellas, last season’s Serie B runners-up, have put themselves in prime position for a European spot. They will face a tough test at home against Napoli, who are on a five-match unbeaten run and have scored 12 goals in their last five matches.
Here is a closer look at the weekend’s action from the top leagues in Europe:
Second-place Manchester City are the most in-form side in the English Premier League right now after a 6-0 midweek thrashing of West Ham United in the Capital One Cup semifinals and five straight victories in league play. The Citizens, who trail first-place Arsenal by one point, now travel Sunday to face an eighth-place Newcastle United side that is starting to slide down the league table. Newcastle have posted three consecutive one-goal losses across competitions and have been struggling to score recently, which could be a serious problem against a high-powered offense like Manchester City.
In the last two weeks, Manchester United have lost to Tottenham in EPL play, Swansea City in the FA Cup and Sunderland in the Capital One Cup — but they could get revenge on one of those teams this weekend. Seventh-place Man United only trail Liverpool by five points for the final Champions League spot as they prepare to host Swansea City, who knocked them out of the FA Cup with a last-minute win last weekend. Swansea are on a six-match winless run in league play, but they will enter Old Trafford with the confidence of their victory from just one week ago against the Red Devils and under-fire manager David Moyes.
Here are this weekend’s matches in the English Premier League:
Hull City vs. Chelsea
Cardiff City vs. West Ham United
Everton vs. Norwich City
Fulham vs. Sunderland
Southampton vs. West Bromwich Albion
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Crystal Palace
Manchester United vs. Swansea City
Newcastle United vs. Manchester City
Stoke City vs. Liverpool
After Barcelona and Atletico Madrid face off on Saturday, Real Madrid will look to gain ground on one or possibly both teams Sunday in their road match against 10th-place Espanyol. High-powered Real have won seven of their last eight matches, scoring less than three goals in only two of those matches. Espanyol have been up-and-down in form recently, but they dispatched their last visitors from the Spanish capital, second-placed Atletico, with a shocking 1-0 victory at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat.
Athletic Bilbao will look to hang onto their coveted fourth-place spot this weekend against 14th-placed Almeria. Bilbao are still unbeaten at the new San Mames, but a woeful road record have put them a distant 11 points behind Real Madrid. With Real Sociedad and Villarreal, who play Monday, close behind, low-scoring Bilbao will aim for another tight victory against an Almeria side that posted back-to-back wins against Granada and last-place Real Betis.
Here are this weekend’s matches in La Liga:
Granada vs. Real Valladolid
Athletic Bilbao vs. Almeria
Celta Vigo vs. Valencia
Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona
Elche vs. Sevilla
Getafe vs. Rayo Vallecano
Real Betis vs. Osasuna
Espanyol vs. Real Madrid
Levante vs. Malaga
After their 3-0 victory against second-place AS Roma, first-place Juventus are on the fast track to their third consecutive title. Not only has Juve’s dominant run this season included a stifling defense that has allowed just one goal in their last 10 matches, they also feature an offense that has been scoring at will in recent weeks. Juventus will look to make it 11 consecutive victories this weekend against Cagliari, who are on an interesting seven-match unbeaten run in which five of those results have been draws.
Roma will look to bounce back from that devastating road loss at Juventus in a home match against ninth-place Genoa. The capital club still hold an unbeaten mark inside the Stadio Olimpico this season, outscoring opponents 20-2 in home matches. Matches featuring Genoa are usually low-scoring affairs, so Roma will be looking to break down that stingy defense with an offensive output similar to their last home match, a 4-0 rout of Catania.
Here are this weekend’s matches in Serie A:
Livorno vs. Parma
Bologna vs. Lazio
Torino vs. Fiorentina
AS Roma vs. Genoa
Atalanta vs. Catania
Cagliari vs. Juventus
Hellas Verona vs. Napoli
Sassuolo vs. AC Milan
First-place Paris Saint-Germain open the second half of their Ligue 1 campaign with a road trip to last-place Ajaccio. PSG drew 1-1 with Ajaccio in their second match this season, but the defending champions have rebounded to win 13 of the 16 matches since that surprising draw at the Parc des Princes. Ajaccio have gone a dozen matches without a single win, setting up a potential blowout victory for a high-scoring PSG side that has scored 10 goals in their last three league matches.
Second-place AS Monaco will look to stay on pace with PSG, who lead by three points, in their road match against struggling Montpellier. The 2011-12 Ligue 1 champions have fallen all the way down to 17th place this season, winning only one of their last 10 matches in what has been a miserable run for the club. Monaco lost to Valenciennes before the holiday break, and a bounceback win would be a great boost for a club currently in the midst of a four-match road trip across all competitions.
Here are this weekend’s matches in Ligue 1:
Montpellier vs. AS Monaco
Ajaccio vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Bordeaux vs. Toulouse
Guingamp vs. Saint Etienne
Lyon vs. Sochaux
Stade Rennes vs. Nice
Valenciennes vs. Bastia
Nantes vs. Lorient
Evian Thonon Gaillard vs. Marseille
Lille vs. Stade de Reims
Which European matches are you looking forward to the most this weekend? Think Atletico Madrid can continue their perfect home streak and grab the lead over first-place Barcelona? See Hellas Verona holding onto a European spot this season? Who do you think will win the rematch between Manchester United and Swansea City?
Share your thoughts below.