By JUSTIN FERGUSON
When Barcelona visited Athletic Bilbao in December, the first-place club suffered its first La Liga loss under first-year manager Gerardo Martino.
Four months later, Barcelona need a win against their old foes in order to keep their season from going completely off the rails.
After three straight losses—one to Atletico Madrid that knocked them out of the Champions League, one to bottom-half Granada that put them four points behind the La Liga lead and one to rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey Final—third-place Barcelona return to Camp Nou on Sunday desperate for all three points against fourth-place Athletic Bilbao. With the Madrid rivals leading the title charge with a few matches left in the campaign, Martino’s squad probably will not be able to afford a repeat of their 1-0 loss at the San Mames earlier this season.
Barcelona will be without Neymar and Dani Alves for the next few weeks due to injury, and center back Marc Bartra could miss this weekend’s important league match. Even with Neymar, the Barcelona offense has sputtered in the last few days, which could be a real problem against one of La Liga’s toughest defenses. Bilbao do not light up the scoreboard with their offense, but they have allowed more than one goal only once in their last nine league matches and are looking to seal an all-important Champions League spot.
In England, the battle for European qualification will continue at Goodison Park, where fifth-place Everton welcome former manager David Moyes and his seventh-place Manchester United squad. Everton’s Champions League dreams took a hit earlier this week with a loss to Crystal Palace, and now they trail fourth-place Arsenal by one point heading into the final four matches of the season. On the other side, Moyes’ Red Devils have scored four goals in back-to-back English Premier League victories and will head to their manager’s old stomping grounds in pursuit of sixth-place Tottenham Hotspur’s Europa League spot.
Here is a closer look at this weekend’s action from the top leagues in Europe:
First-place Liverpool hold a two-point lead over second-place Chelsea heading into this weekend’s action in the EPL. But before they host the Blues next weekend in a potential title-decider at Anfield, the Reds travel to 17th-place Norwich City, who are fighting for their first-division lives with a new manager and a three-match losing streak in league play. In the two sides’ last meeting, Luis Suarez scored four goals in a 5-1 Liverpool riot against Norwich City, but now both teams each have something extremely valuable to play for as we head into the dramatic final four matches of the season.
Second-place Chelsea will prepare for their monstrous week of playing at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semifinals and at Liverpool in a monstrous EPL tie with a home match against last-place Sunderland. It has been feast or famine recently for Chelsea, who have either kept a shutout or have been shutout by a league opponent in their last six matches. The Black Cats of Sunderland should look positively at their 2-2 midweek draw with title contenders Manchester City and their close 4-3 loss to Chelsea earlier this season, but they will most likely need at least a point from their trip to the bridge to avoid relegation.
Here are this weekend’s matches in the English Premier League:
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Fulham
Aston Villa vs. Southampton
Cardiff City vs. Stoke City
Newcastle United vs. Swansea City
West Ham United vs. Crystal Palace
Chelsea vs. Sunderland
Hull City vs. Arsenal
Norwich City vs. Liverpool
Everton vs. Manchester United
First-place Atletico Madrid can put additional distance between themselves and second-place Real Madrid, who are off this weekend, with a Friday victory against 15th-place Elche at the Vicente Calderon. Atletico are winners of seven straight matches in La Liga, with six of them clean sheets from in-form goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Elche sit just four points ahead of the drop zone in the league table and currently hold one of the worst road records in La Liga—winless in 11 straight and winners of just two overall this season.
One of the weekend’s most important matches in La Liga’s relegation battle will be 14th-place Celta Vigo’s trip to 19th-place Almeria. Celta Vigo could move one step closer to survival with a road victory, and they were able to post a 3-1 win against Almeria in their match earlier this season. Almeria are two points away from safety in the league table, but they are on a three-match losing streak despite strong performances recently against Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad, who are both locks to be in Europe next season.
Here are this weekend’s matches in La Liga:
Atletico Madrid vs. Elche
Osasuna vs. Valencia
Levante vs. Getafe
Real Sociedad vs. Espanyol
Almeria vs. Celta Vigo
Rayo Vallecano vs. Real Betis
Sevilla vs. Granada
Barcelona vs. Athletic Bilbao
A battle of first vs. worst highlights this weekend’s Bundesliga matches as Bayern Munich head to Eintracht Braunschweig, who are fighting for survival in a tight bottom section of the league table. Bayern, who have dropped their last two matches in the league after winning the title, will most likely field a strong side ahead of their Champions League semifinals clash with Real Madrid. However, Eintracht Braunschweig have something to play for, and another positive result at home would be valuable in their relegation battle.
Seventeenth-place Nurnberg are also in the drop zone in the Bundesliga and will be out to get a home result of their own against a Champions League-caliber side. Fourth-place Bayer Leverkusen travel to Nurnberg this weekend with a narrow advantage in the race for the final Champions League spot in Germany and the momentum from an important home win under new interim manager Sascha Lewandowski. Nurnberg have lost seven of their last eight matches in league play and were beaten 3-0 by Leverkusen earlier this season, so the squad from the BayArena should be in line for all three points again this weekend.
Here are this weekend’s matches in the Bundesliga:
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Hannover
Borussia Dortmund vs. Mainz
Augsburg vs. Hertha Berlin
Freiburg vs. Borussia Monchengladbach
Eintracht Braunschweig vs. Bayern Munich
Werder Bremen vs. Hoffenheim
Hamburg vs. Wolfsburg
Nurnberg vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Stuttgart vs. Schalke
First-place Juventus have an eight-point lead over second-place AS Roma as they chase their third consecutive Serie A title. Juve can take another big step in reclaiming the Scudetto this weekend when they host 17th-place Bologna, who are three points ahead of the drop zone after back-to-back draws against Europa League qualification contenders. Juventus start their Europa League semifinal matchup with Portugal’s Benfica next week, but fans should expect the home team to capture all three points in their quest for another domestic championship.
Roma are not out mathematically out of the title race with Juventus, but they seem like a lock for second place heading into this weekend’s match at fourth-place Fiorentina, who are also long shots for an important place. Fiorentina, who will play in next month’s Coppa Italia final, trail Napoli by nine points for the last Champions League spot in Italy. Roma are winners of seven straight in Serie A and will fondly remember their 2-1 home victory against the Viola from earlier this season, when they snapped a long streak of draws that resulted in their loss of the league’s top spot.
Here are this weekend’s matches in Serie A:
AC Milan vs. Livorno
Atalanta vs. Hellas Verona
Catania vs. Sampdoria
Chievo Verona vs. Sassuolo
Genoa vs. Cagliari
Lazio vs. Torino
Parma vs. Inter Milan
Udinese vs. Napoli
Juventus vs. Bologna
Fiorentina vs. AS Roma
With first-place Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de La Ligue final against Lyon this weekend, second-place AS Monaco can put some pressure on the league leaders and seal a Champions League spot with a win against 13th-place Nice. Monaco are coming off a tough 3-1 Coupe de France semifinal loss to Guingamp, but they are on a six-match unbeaten run in their home of the Stade Louis II. Nice are on a four-match winless skid and lost 3-0 at home to Monaco earlier this season, so the second-place side should register all three points this weekend against their struggling opponents.
Here are this weekend’s matches in Ligue 1:
Saint Etienne vs. Stade Rennes
AS Monaco vs. Nice
Bastia vs. AC Ajaccio
Bordeaux vs. Guingamp
Lorient vs. Montpellier
Stade de Reims vs. Sochaux
Valenciennes vs. Nantes
Marseille vs. Lille
Which European matches are you looking forward to the most this weekend? Think Barcelona turns it around this Sunday against Athletic Bilbao? See Moyes and Man United pulling off the upset of Everton at Goodison Park? Have any other potential upsets in mind?
Share your thoughts below.