European Football Preview: Pressure piles on Setien, Milan derby in focus

On the back of exits from the Copa del Rey, Barcelona and Real Madird move their attention to the La Liga. Zlatan Ibrahimovic return adds spice to Milan derby.

Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri (L) and Inter Milan manager Antonio Conte have yet another crucial weekend ahead of them in the Serie A.   -  Getty Images

Another weekend of European football is upon us. La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 have been more competitive than the Premier League this season. With both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid surprisingly bowing out of the Copa Del Rey at just the quarterfinal stage, let's take a look at what to expect from the top-five leagues across the continent.

Barca in turmoil trying to make up for Messi's lost time

Lionel Messi admitted in December he could soon retire but Barcelona's frenzied attempts to make the most of his final years appear to be having the opposite effect.

As Athletic Bilbao's players celebrated Inaki Williams' 94th-minute winner at San Mames on Thursday night, Messi stood still in the centre circle, hands on his hips and staring down at the ground in front.

He had missed a chance to win it, his shot saved by Unai Simon, just moments before Williams' flicked header crept inside the post to send Barca out of the Copa del Rey before the semi-finals for the first time in 10 years.

Messi has been the inspiration and saviour of this Barcelona team, his finger prints on their string of La Liga titles more than anyone else's.

But as Bilbao proved, when Messi misses, Barca are there to be hit, their insecurities known and ready to be exposed.

The political turmoil now engulfing the club stems in part from desperation, not to waste Messi's final years or at least to be seen to be trying to make the best of them.

He will be 33 in June and said at the Ballon d'Or presentation retirement was “approaching” but a sense of time running out haa long-lingered at Camp Nou.

When Messi won the Champions League in 2015, aged 27, the assumption was there would be more but instead there has been only disappointment, three quarterfinals and one semifinal, the last two tournaments ending in capitulation.

The fear of a repeat and another year squandered was instrumental in the decision to sack Ernesto Valverde last month, even if players insisted losses to Roma and Liverpool were not down to their coach.

After the clumsy appointment of Quique Setien, in which Xavi Hernandez was approached but not persuaded, and then a botched January transfer window, when strikers were targeted but not signed, frustration grew.

In an interview with Diario Sport on Tuesday, the club's sporting director Eric Abidal then called out Xavi, who remains close to many in the dressing room, and shifted responsibility onto the players.

Alba speaks out

As the most powerful among them, Messi was implicated most.

He hit back, insisting “everyone should take responsibility for their actions” and that not naming names “tarnished all the players”.

Jordi Alba joined in the rebuke on Thursday night. “Those facing the music are the players and the coaching staff,” he said. “Enough shit is thrown at us from the outside, we don't have to throw it at ourselves from within.”

In the middle of it all, Setien is trying to usher in a new style of play mid-season, more in-keeping with the club's DNA and better suited to Messi.

Setien said on Wednesday his “obligation” was to focus on football but that has been a concern as well, two defeats in his opening six games leaving Barcelona out of the cup and three points behind in the league.

A clause in Messi's contract means he could leave for free at the end of the season but the situation is likely to need to deteriorate further for that to become a realistic possibility.

No club in Europe can offer guaranteed success in the Champions League and Messi said in October he was against uprooting his family and three children from the city he has called home for close to two decades.

But lurking over the next month is a Champions League tie against Napoli and the Clasico against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, when failure would be harder to swallow.

First, Barca play away at Real Betis on Sunday before two home games against Getafe and Eibar could offer a chance to reset.

If they falter, Real Madrid look primed to capitalise even if it was jolted by cup defeat too on Thursday in a 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad. Madrid plays away on Sunday at Osasuna.

Fixtures (GMT)

Friday

Alaves v Eibar (2000)

Saturday

Levante v Leganes (1200), Getafe v Valencia (1500), Real Valladolid v Villarreal (1730), Atletico Madrid v Granada (2000)

In-form Bayern out to ‘boss’ Leipzig in Bundesliga showdown

After getting a mid-week “wake-up call” in the German Cup, Bundesliga leader Bayern Munich is relishing the chance to prove its might in a top-of-the-table clash at home to RB Leipzig on Sunday.

Bayern’s sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic insists the defending champion want to show nearest rival Leipzig “who is the boss” at Munich’s Allianz Area.

Salihamidzic said the host is embracing “the role of favourites”, adding that Leipzig had been “weakened a bit” by poor results.

Bayern swept to the top of the table last weekend for the first time since October and has won its last eight games.

However, Hoffenheim found plenty of space to attack in Wednesday’s German Cup third-round tie as Bayern conceded two goals in the final 10 minutes as a comfortable 4-1 lead became a nervy 4-3 victory.

“Perhaps it’s quite good to realise before the Leipzig game, that things won’t simply work of their own accord,” admitted Bayern midfielder Joshua Kimmich.

Head coach Hansi Flick called the narrow win a “wake-up call“.

Leipzig, who spent more than a month over Christmas top of the table, has had cold water poured on its title aspirations in recent weeks.

A shock 2-0 loss at Eintracht Frankfurt a fortnight ago cost it a four-point lead. Then Bayern went a point ahead at the top after Leipzig’s 2-2 draw at home to Borussia Moenchengladbach last Saturday.

Another loss at Frankfurt in mid-week, when top-scoring striker Timo Werner and playmaker Emil Forsberg both started on the bench, saw Leipzig dumped out of the German Cup.

“Leipzig will want to show a reaction,” Kimmich said.

Sunday’s clash will also see the league’s leading scorer Robert Lewandowski, who has 22 goals in 20 games, go head-to-head with his nearest rival Werner, who is on 20.

Before Bayern and Leipzig slug it out, third-placed Borussia Dortmund could go top on Saturday with a win at Bayer Leverkusen.

Erling Braut Haaland, 19, has a record eight goals in his first four games for Dortmund, which was knocked out of the German Cup in midweek when it went down 3-2 at Werder Bremen.

Sports director Michael Zorc slammed the team for playing “listlessly, comfortably and slowly“.

Haaland has yet to play a full 90 minutes for Dortmund as he works his way back to full fitness after a knee injury in December.

One to watch: Thomas Mueller

Lewandowski is making the headlines with 35 goals in 29 games after scoring two more in Wednesday’s cup win against Hoffenheim.

However, a big factor is the space and chances being created behind him by Mueller, who has seven goals and nine assists in the 14 games since Flick replaced Niko Kovac as head coach in November.

Mueller’s form has sparked debate in Germany over whether head coach Joachim Loew should recall the player for Euro 2020 despite telling the 30-year-old last March that his international career is over.

Key facts

180 - The minutes Haaland has needed to score eight goals in four games for Dortmund.

22 - The goals Lewandowski has scored in 22 league games. Only Gerd Mueller, in the 1972/73 season, has ever scored as many goals in the same number of games.

17 - The age of Dortmund midfielder Giovanni Reyna, who scored his first goal for the club in Tuesday’s cup defeat at Bremen when he beat two defenders and curled his shot into the top corner.

44 - The goals Lewandowski and Mueller have scored between them for Bayern in all competitions this season.

Fixtures (all times 1430 GMT unless stated)

Friday

Eintracht Frankfurt v Augsburg (1930)

Saturday

Wolfsburg v Fortuna Duesseldorf, Werder Bremen v Union Berlin, Hertha Berlin v Mainz, Freiburg v Hoffenheim, Schalke v Paderborn, Bayer Leverkusen v Borussia Dortmund (1730)

Sunday

Borussia Moenchengladbach v Cologne, Bayern Munich v RB Leipzig

 

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Ibrahimovic return adds spice to Milan derby

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's return to AC Milan will add spice to the city derby against Inter Milan on Sunday with the Swede looking to thwart Antonio Conte's side from keeping pace with Serie A leader Juventus.

Ibrahimovic played his first Milan derby as an Inter player 13 years ago, while his last was for rival AC Milan in May 2012, when he scored a double in a 4-2 defeat.

Ibrahimovic was the top scorer that season with 28 goals but Milan lost the Serie A title to Conte's Juventus, the first in the Turin giant's current run of eight league crowns.

The 38-year-old's return to Milan -- whom he helped to its last Serie A title in 2011 -- has proved a boost with his side now eighth, seven points adrift of the Champions League berths.

Milan was on a three-match winning run with Ibrahimovic on the pitch but was held 1-1 by Hellas Verona last weekend when the Swede was sidelined by the flu.

AC Milan director Zvonimir Boban praised Ibrahimovic's impact, insisting the Swede was pushing to be ready for “a unique derby”.

Ibrahimovic meanwhile posted on Twitter a video of himself roaring, with the caption: “Lions don't sound like humans.”

Stefano Pioli's Milan come up against an Inter which has been transformed since Conte's arrival last June. They are just three points behind Juventus, who travel to Verona.

Milan lost the reverse fixture 2-0 in September under Marco Giampaolo, who was sacked after just seven games.

Last summer Inter signed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, the latter on loan, from Manchester United.

Conte again raided the Premier League during the winter break, bringing in Christian Eriksen, Ashley Young and Victor Moses.

“He'll be more used to this type of game, I'm just starting,” said former Tottenham midfielder Eriksen of Ibrahimovic, adding he was relishing his first 'Derby della Madonnina'.

“I've seen it on TV in the past but playing now will be very different,” the Dane told Gazzetta Dello Sport.

“Compared to London, I expect a different atmosphere, here the whole stadium sings, there will be so much noise, it will be beautiful.”

- Ronaldo in Verona -

Juventus travels to Verona on Saturday with Cristiano Ronaldo bidding to extend his scoring streak to 10 consecutive league games, to keep pace with Lazio's Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile's 25 goals.

Verona is on a seven-game unbeaten run and held in-form Lazio to a goalless draw in Rome midweek.

Simone Inzaghi's Lazio is just one point behind Inter Milan in third and will be targeting a record 18th successive match unbeaten.

City rival Roma hosts Bologna on Friday after losing to Sassuolo last time out, as it tries to stay in the Champions League race.

The side from the capital is equal on points with fourth-placed Atalanta, which travels to 14th-placed Fiorentina.

Torino hosts Sampdoria under new coach Moreno Longo after Walter Mazzarri was sacked following three consecutive defeats, in which it conceded 13 goals.

Struggling Brescia also switched coaches with Diego Lopez replacing Eugenio Corini.

Key stats

19 - Points between Inter and AC Milan

17 - Lazio's unbeaten run in Serie A

14 - Ronaldo's goals in the last nine games

3 - Inter's points off leaders Juventus

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Friday

Roma v Bologna (1945)

Saturday

Fiorentina v Atalanta (1400), Torino v Sampdoria (1700), Hellas Verona v Juventus (1945)

Sunday

SPAL v Sassuolo (1130), Genoa v Cagliari, Brescia v Udinese, Napoli v Lecce (all 1400), Parma v Lazio (1700), Inter Milan v AC Milan (1945)

 

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Could Neymar, Mbappe antics derail PSG as season enters crunch time?

While Neymar has been partying with an injured rib, and Kylian Mbappe has been making no attempt to hide his displeasure with his coach, Paris Saint-Germain supporters could be forgiven for having that sinking feeling.

This has been the time of year when the French club’s season has tended to implode in recent years, with three successive eliminations in the first knockout round of the Champions League.

It is currently unbeaten in 20 games in all competitions after Tuesday’s 2-1 success at Nantes, and sits 12 points clear at the top of Ligue 1.

However, everything is gearing up towards its Champions League last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund, with the first leg in Germany on February 18.

PSG has not made it beyond the last 16 in four years, with the nature of defeats against Barcelona in 2017 and Manchester United last season helping make it something of a laughing stock around Europe.

Injuries to Neymar at this stage in each of the last two years proved crucial, so fans of a nervous disposition will be hoping the rib injury suffered by the Brazilian against Montpellier last weekend is nothing more than a short-term problem.

The injury did not prevent the world’s most expensive player from staging a lavish party at a Parisian nightclub for his 28th birthday last Sunday, but it did keep him out of the Nantes game.

With the Dortmund first leg coming into view, he could be rested for this Sunday’s visit of Lyon.

“I hope he can play on Sunday,” said coach Thomas Tuchel. “He was in pain at half-time against Montpellier. He is in exceptional form, but we will decide later. He needs to manage the pain.”

Meanwhile, Mbappe seems certain to play, just as he did in midweek despite an angry reaction to being substituted against Montpellier which has brought back the rumours that the 21-year-old -- regularly linked with Real Madrid -- may not stick around in Paris too much longer.

“He was decisive for us. There was no need for him to show a reaction,” Tuchel said of Mbappe’s midweek performance. The France star is PSG’s leading scorer this season with 22 goals.

The days when Lyon was the most feared opponent in the country are long gone, and it has taken just two points from its last 11 visits to Paris.

Rudi Garcia’s side is also struggling in sixth place just now after a soporific 0-0 draw with Amiens in midweek.

With or without Neymar, PSG will surely be too strong for it. It is the Dortmund tie that really matters though, and Tuchel needs his two biggest stars fully fit and focused in time for the trip to Germany.

Player to watch: Stephy Mavididi

One of that rare breed of English players trying his luck abroad, the 21-year-old, Derby-born forward Mavididi is currently a regular in a Dijon team battling to avoid relegation.

Mavididi left Arsenal without playing a top-team game and last year he joined Juventus -- becoming its first English player since David Platt in 1992 -- after being scouted by Giorgio Chiellini’s brother.

After one appearance for Juve last season, he was allowed to move to France on loan and he has already scored three times for the Burgundy side, which hosts Nantes this weekend.

Key stats

4 - The number of goals scored by Mbappe in a 5-0 win when PSG hosted Lyon last season.

15 - Marseille is unbeaten in 15 games in all competitions, including 12 in the league, as it hosts bottom club Toulouse, which has taken one solitary point over the same period.

12 - The number of league goals scored by Metz captain Habib Diallo this season. The club that brought Sadio Mane, Ismaila Sarr and Papiss Cisse to Europe have unearthed another Senegalese gem.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday

Angers v Lille (1945)

Saturday

Marseille v Toulouse (1630), Amiens v Monaco, Dijon v Nantes, Metz v Bordeaux, Nice v Nimes, Rennes v Brest (all 1900) Sunday

Montpellier v Saint-Etienne (1400), Strasbourg v Reims (1600), Paris Saint-Germain v Lyon (2000)

Compiled from AFP, PTI.

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