European leagues preview: Inter aims to return to winnings ways

Barcelona has its sights set on finishing on top of the La Liga table heading into the winter break while Inter Milan aims to break its winless streak.

Inter Milan is winless in its last three matches across competitions.   -  GETTY IMAGES

La Liga

The first Clasico stalemate in 17 years means Barcelona will likely finish 2019 top of La Liga if it beats Alaves on Saturday, despite a distinctly underwhelming opening half of the season.

Barca has lacked purpose and clarity in recent months and three defeats in the league is already more than it endured in the entirety of its title-winning run last term.

“Grey, but surviving - Barcelona are still the leader,” read the headline in Madrid daily AS on Thursday.

None of its rivals have been able to take advantage, not even Real Madrid, which was the better team for long spells of a scrappy contest on Wednesday but failed to make it count.

Madrid has failed to take its chances in the title race too and is still level on points with Barcelona and two behind on goal difference after missing opportunities to jump above its rival last weekend and again in midweek.

It might be harsh to judge draws away at Mestalla against Valencia and then Camp Nou as slip-ups, yet a Barcelona team which has been in second gear and was without an injured Lionel Messi for several weeks is still sitting top of the pile.

Zinedine Zidane's side has motored in recent weeks and is unbeaten in 12 matches. It would be a surprise if it did not add another victory at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. Madrid has momentum and the next Clasico is at the Santiago Bernabeu too.

If Barcelona has been disappointing, it might also have greater potential for improvement. Messi is fit and firing again, Antoine Griezmann has shown signs he is finding his feet and Frenkie de Jong seems to get better every week.

If a stumbling Barca can set the pace at the top, perhaps it could pull away if it hits its stride.

Atletico Madrid, which travels to Real Betis on Sunday, will hope to accelerate soon too, possibly with the help of a new striker in January to ease its chronic problems in front of goal.

Seven points is a big gap to close, especially as Diego Simeone's side has trips to both Barcelona and Real Madrid in January and February.

Sevilla is ahead of Atletico, although defeat at home to Villarrreal and a draw away at Osasuna checked an otherwise excellent start under Julen Lopetegui. It faces Mallorca on Saturday.

Getafe sits fourth ahead of a trip to Villarreal as it continues to prove its remarkable challenge for Champions League qualification last season was not a fluke. Jose Bordalas' team will be seeking its seventh consecutive victory.

Serie A

Inter Milan will want to get things back on track when it faces 19th placed Genoa on Saturday. Antonio Conte's men are winless in last three games -- two draws in the league and a defeat in the Champions League -- across competition.

A win will be paramount for Inter as it could help it finish top of the table heading into the Christmas break. Cristiano Ronaldo's NBA style header during the midweek proved to be the winner for Juventus which took the side three points above the Nerazurri.

Juventus now turns its attention to the Supercoppa Italiana final against Lazio on Sunday. Free of European commitments after its Europa League elimination, Lazio, six points behind Juve, may perhaps have wanted to extend its successive wins to nine matches in the league.

Aleksandar Kolarov scored a magnificent free-kick as Roma bolstered its Champions League credentials in Italy with a 4-1 victory away to Fiorentina on Friday.

Edin Dzeko’s seventh goal of the season put Roma ahead on 19 minutes in Florence against a side without a win at home since October 6.

Former Manchester City defender Kolarov curled in a 20-yard strike to double Roma’s lead before Milan Badelj pulled one back just past the half-hour.

Roma ensured it put some pressure on local rival Lazio as Lorenzo Pellegrini’s first-time effort from a Dzeko lay-off restored its two-goal cushion on 73 minutes.

The Bosnian forward then released Nicolo Zaniolo just inside the Fiorentina half, allowing the Italy international to sweep in a late fourth after a long run.

Paulo Fonseca’s Roma has lost just once in Serie A since late September and a fourth win in five moved it six points clear of Cagliari in the race for the final Champions League spot.

Bundesliga

Robert Lewandowski may be facing off against the Bundesliga’s stingiest defence, but the Bayern Munich striker has every reason to think he will find the net when Wolfsburg visits on Saturday.

Lewandowski has been in vintage form this season in the 2019-20 Bundesliga, scoring 19 goals.

In 16 matches this season, Wolfsburg has conceded just 16 goals - three lower than Lewandowski’s current total as the Bundesliga’s winter break approaches.

If history is any guide, however, the tally is set to rise higher given the Pole’s knack for finding the net against the Wolves, who are officially Lewandowski’s favourite Bundesliga opponent.

In 18 games against the green and whites, Lewandowski has found the back of the net 21 times, including his remarkable five goals in nine minutes against it in September 2015.

That feat was all the more impressive because he had come off the bench with Bayern behind 1-0.

When he scored Bayern’s opener against Freiburg in midweek, Lewandowski overtook club legend and former coach Jupp Heynckes to move to third on the all-time Bundesliga goal-scoring list with 221.

Wolfsburg started the season with a bang and was the final undefeated team in the Bundesliga before hitting a rough patch and losing four out of five games from November until mid-December.

It has bounced back recently, beating then leader Borussia Moenchengladbach and drawing with an in-form Schalke over the past week.

Ligue 1

Leonardo Jardim finds himself again facing mounting scrutiny in his second spell as Monaco boss after a humbling home defeat by Lille in the French League Cup in midweek.

Jardim, the mastermind of Monaco's run to the 2017 Ligue 1 title, heads into the final game of the year with his side six points adrift of the Champions League places.

Monaco hosts Lille, which occupy that third European spot, for the second time in five days this weekend having suffered a deflating 3-0 loss at the Stade Louis II on Tuesday.

“We weren't up to scratch. We expect more of ourselves and we must give a response Saturday,” Jardim said following his side's last 16 exit.

The Portuguese landed himself in the spotlight in September as Monaco picked up just three points from their opening six games despite a summer outlay of 135 million euros ($150 million).

Five wins in six helped douse the flames but this week's abject display against Lille stoked fresh concerns about the direction the club is heading.

“Do I feel in danger? Like all coaches. We've progressed since (September). It's not up to me to make an assessment,” Jardim told reporters Thursday.

The 45-year-old was reappointed in January, just three months after he was sacked and replaced by Thierry Henry.

“The boss asked me to come back. I'm serving the club. We're building a new team,” said Jardim. “Being on the frontline is the life of a coach. I prefer the criticism is directed at me rather than my players. Let them do their job and show their qualities. I prefer to be the target.”

Reports in France suggest another limp display at home, where a smattering of Monaco fans voiced their displeasure midweek, could place Jardim's future in serious jeopardy.

One bonus for Monaco, which in contrast could begin 2020 just three points back of third place with victory Saturday, will be the absence of Lille striker Victor Osimhen.

The Nigerian will not be risked after complaining of pain and dizziness while celebrating his first-half goal in the cup encounter.

League leader Paris Saint-Germain hosts Amiens while second-placed Marseille, which trails its bitter rivals by seven points, conclude 2019 against Nimes at the Velodrome.

On Friday, Sergis Adamyan and Andrej Kramaric scored late goals as Hoffenheim fought back for a 2-1 win to stop Borussia Dortmund from moving within a point of Bundesliga leader RB Leipzig.

Fixtures (All times in GMT)

La Liga

Friday: Eibar vs Granada (2000)

Saturday: Mallorca vs Sevilla (1200), Barcelona vs Alaves (1500), Villarreal vs Getafe (1730), Real Valladolid vs Valencia (2000)

Sunday: Leganes vs Espanyol (1100), Osasuna v  Real Sociedad (1300), Real Betis vs Atletico Madrid (1500), Levante vs Celta Vigo (1730)

Serie A

Saturday: Udinese v Cagliari (1400), Inter Milan v Genoa (1700), Torino v SPAL (1945)

Sunday: Atalanta vs Milan (1200), Lecce vs Bologna (1400), Parma vs Brescia (1400), Sassuolo vs Napoli (1945)

Bundesliga

Saturday: Cologne v Werder Bremen, Mainz v Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke v SC Freiburg, Bayern Munich v Wolfsburg, RB Leipzig v Augsburg Hertha Berlin v Borussia Moenchengladbach (1730)

Sunday: Fortuna Duesseldorf v Union Berlin Paderborn v Eintracht Frankfurt (1700)

Ligue 1

Saturday (all kick-offs 1945 GMT): Dijon vs Metz, Marseille vs Nimes, Monaco vs Lille, Montpellier vs Brest, Nantes vs Angers, Nice vs Toulouse, Paris Saint-Germain vs Amiens, Reims vs Lyon, Rennes vs Bordeaux, Strasbourg vs Saint-Etienne

 

With inputs from AFP, PTI

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