European Football Preview: Sarri returns to Napoli, Bayern hosts Schalke
Sarri will return to his former club Napoli for the first time since 2018 with Juventus in Serie A, while RB Leipzig aims to maintain pole position.
Ronaldo has scored 11 goals in his last seven Serie A appearances.
Barcelona's new era has started with two wins out of two but Saturday's trip to Valencia will provide manager Quique Setien with his first true test and an opportunity to make his mark. After squeezing past Granada 1-0 and scoring two late goals to beat Ibiza 2-1, Barca is still without a convincing victory to give its new coach some thrust. Against Granada, there were clear signs of intent, in the 83 per cent possession and 1,005 attempted passes, both the most seen by a team in La Liga since Pep Guardiola's in 2011.
But dominance did not convert into goals and the winner, scored by Lionel Messi, only came in the 76th minute, after Granada had been reduced to 10 men. On an artificial pitch and with a weakened team facing inspired, albeit third tier, opposition, Ibiza in the Copa del Rey perhaps always offered little up-side.
But a 94th-minute winner from Antoine Griezmann, who had scored the equaliser too, spoke less of control and more a narrow escape. When Setien was appointed last week he admitted it was unusual to take over a team top of La Liga and, despite a longing for a change of style, the sense was he might introduce his beliefs gradually.
Real Madrid has looked the sturdier proposition for a few weeks but has been unable to pull away, instead sitting level on points with Barca at the top of La Liga and below the holder on goal difference. Zinedine Zidane's team is 18 games unbeaten, a streak it will be confident of extending on Sunday against a Real Valladolid side that has won only once in 11. Los Blancos may again be without Gareth Bale, who went off with an ankle injury after scoring in Madrid's Copa del Rey victory over Unionistas de Salamanca on Wednesday.
Griezmann scored twice in Barcelona's 2-1 win over Ibiza. Photo: Getty Images
Atletico Madrid's pursuit of Edinson Cavani will likely come too late for its own title challenge, even if it can persuade Paris Saint-Germain to part with the 32-year-old striker this month. Eight points is now the gap between Los Colchoneros and the top two and while Cavani could certainly alleviate its problems in front of goal.
Atletico hosts struggling Leganes on Sunday while Sevilla, in fourth, play at home on Saturday against Granada. Atletico could do with a win after being shocked 2-1 by third division CD Leonesa in the Spanish Copa del Rey on Thursday.
RB Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann is trying to ensure the Bundesliga leader stays alert at Eintracht Frankfurt this weekend amid an intensifying title race by organising a sleep seminar. Bayern Munich's seven-year domination in Germany is under threat with Leipzig, Borussia Monchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke all in the hunt for this season's title.
Leipzig travels to mid-table Frankfurt looking to maintain its four-point lead over second-placed Bayern and extend a 13-game unbeaten run in all competitions. Striker Timo Werner is level with Bayern star Robert Lewandowski as the league's joint top scorer with 20 goals after netting twice in last weekend's 3-1 home win over Union Berlin. In an effort to squeeze every advantage Nagelsmann brought in sleep experts to brief his squad about getting better rest between games.
Bayern hosts high-flying Schalke, which clawed back into the title picture with a 2-0 home win over Gladbach following the winter break. The defending champion has strengthened its injury-hit defence by signing right-back Alvaro Odriozola on loan from Real Madrid. Schalke last beat Bayern in 2011, but David Wagner's side has improved since the 3-0 home loss to the Bavarians in August when Lewandowski bagged a hat-trick.
Borussia Dortmund will host mid-table struggler FC Koln after a stunning turnaround victory against Augsburg last week inspired by a teenage sensation Erling Haaland. The Norwegian came off the bench with the Schwarzgelben trailing 1-3 and scored a stunning hat-trick to lift his side to a 5-3 win. Koln coach Markus Gisdol joked that he will have park three team buses in the final third to stop the 19-year old. Lucien Favre will need his front line up and firing as the Yellow and Blacks look to move to second in the standings with the win.
Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri said he expects an emotional return to his former club Napoli on Sunday as Lazio and Roma prepare for a derby clash in Serie A after both capital-city sides exited the Italian Cup during the week.
Sarri missed Juventus’ home game against Napoli with pneumonia in August and Sunday’s game at the Stadio San Paolo will be his first since leaving the club for Chelsea in 2018.
“It will be a tremendously difficult game, emotionally it will be particularly special. My relationship with Naples and above all the city was strong,” said Sarri, after Juve reached the Italian Cup semifinals with a 3-1 win over Roma on Wednesday.
Juventus is top of the league with a four-point lead on second-placed Inter Milan, but Napoli -- Serie A runner-up in the past two seasons -- is struggling in 11th position, 14 points off the Champions League places.
“We must not look at their position in the table,” Sarri continued. “They have a strong team. They are going through a difficult time but have good players.
“There are three points at stake.”
Napoli lost 4-3 in the reverse fixture this season.
But the team is a shadow of the eye-catching side Sarri left in May 2018 to be replaced by Carlos Ancelotti.
Ancelotti helped the team maintain its runner-up position last campaign but was replaced at the troubled side by Gennaro Gattuso last month.
Gattuso has lost four of his five Serie A games in charge and the club has not won at home in the league since October 19.
But the side has been boosted by booking its ticket to the Italian Cup semifinals with a 1-0 win over in-form Lazio this week.
“We played with hunger, character and the right spirit, showing real grit, something we had been lacking up till now,” said Gattuso.
“Now of course we need to keep it up, to climb back up the table.”
Second-placed Inter Milan is at home against sixth-placed Cagliari this weekend, after its title bid was stalled with back-to-back draws.
Lazio -- on a club record 11-match league winning streak -- is third, six points behind Juventus with a game in hand, and two adrift of Inter ahead of the Rome derby.
Paulo Fonseca’s Roma is seven points behind its city rival in the final Champions League berth.
The teams played out a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in September, and last season had a win each.
Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio is pushing for a first Scudetto since 2000, after crashing out of the Italian Cup, which it won last season.
Flagging Atalanta, in fifth, travels to Torino, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s eighth-placed AC Milan visits Brescia on Friday looking to edge closer to the Europa League places.
Brescia striker Mario Balotelli will miss the game against his former club after being handed a two-match ban for arguing with the referee last weekend.
Cavani is out of contract with Paris Saint-Germain at the season’s end and is reportedly determined to join Atletico Madrid having been relegated to a bit-part role in Thomas Tuchel’s team. The Uruguayan did not play in Wednesday’s 3-0 League Cup semifinal win at Reims because he was, according to Tuchel, 'a little bit injured'.
Cavani has scored only five goals this season in 14 appearances. Photo: Getty Images
However, his influence has waned this season, first due to injury and then due to the form of summer signing Mauro Icardi. Cavani, who will be 33 next month, has scored only five goals this season in 14 appearances. Two of those were penalties and two more came against sixth-tier opponent in the French Cup.
While Cavani’s PSG career is coming to an end, that of Tanguy Kouassi is just beginning as his team head to Lille on Sunday sitting eight points clear at the Ligue 1 summit. The 17-year-old Paris-born defender made his debut in December and scored his first goal against Reims. Lille will take inspiration from its 5-1 thrashing of the champion in April, which was PSG's heaviest defeat since 2000. Les Dogues are also undefeated at home since March of this year, a streak of 14 matches.
(With Inputs from PTI)