European Football Preview: Madrid holds advantage over Barca, Mbappe's PSG future in doubt

Real Madrid and Barcelona's La Liga title battle continues as Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich look to extend lead at top of their respective leagues.

Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid and Quique Setien's Barcelona are separated by a solitary point in the 2019-20 La Liga standings.   -  Twitter

The pressure is back on Barcelona as Real Madrid looks to ensure El Clasico momentum lasts in La Liga. Meanwhile, Kylian Mbappe gives a timely reminder of his stunning talent as doubts about Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) future re-emerge.

In Bundesliga, irate fans could provide more banner headlines, while several Serie A coaches last week expressed their dislike for playing in empty stadiums due to the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Here are the important talking points ahead of another weekend of football in Europe's top-five leagues.

- LA LIGA -

Real Madrid’s victory in the Clasico gave it a one-point lead that might mean little in La Liga’s error-strewn title race but whether it causes a decisive shift in momentum will be easier to read after this weekend.

Barcelona hosts Real Sociedad on Saturday, an awkward fixture against a team that has won its last six matches and will still be flying high on the back of beating Mirandes on Wednesday to reach a first Copa del Rey final in 32 years.

 

If Barca needs to respond, Real Madrid has to prove its win at the Santiago Bernabeu can be the start of something more sustained, by overcoming Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin on Sunday. By the time it kicks off in Seville, Madrid could be back lying in second and with the heat back on, as long as Barcelona avoids another setback amid a chaotic few months and a trying 10 days.

Its 1-1 draw away at Napoli in the Champions League a fortnight ago was a decent result and sets it up nicely to make the quarterfinals later this month, given it is expected to finish the job at home. But the performance was underwhelming - again slow and ponderous - and concerns only deepened when an encouraging first half against Madrid was followed by capitulation in the second.

With Real Madrid wounded after its own defeat by Manchester City and uncertain after one win in five games, a braver and bolder Barcelona might have landed a knock-out blow. Instead, Quique Setien’s side dithered and its opponent stormed back, as two goals in 21 minutes swung the pendulum of the title race back in Madrid’s favour, for a few days at least.

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Behind the top two, it seems five teams are fighting for the remaining Champions League places, with Sevilla in third up against Atletico Madrid, in fifth, at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday. In between, Getafe in fourth can capitalise by beating 17th-placed Celta Vigo while Valencia is aiming for a revival itself after beating Betis last weekend for its first win in six. It plays Alaves away on Friday night.

Run-in favours Barca

Barcelona has a relatively kind month in which to restore confidence. After Real Sociedad at home, it plays away at struggling Mallorca and then at home against Napoli, before facing another relegation battler in Leganes, whose top scorer Martin Braithwaite recently left for Barcelona.

Madrid, meanwhile, has a spring in its step but plenty to do to ensure it is not soon playing catch-up. After Betis, it has Eibar at home, four days before the crunch second leg away at Manchester City in the Champions League.

- BUNDESLIGA -

When Hoffenheim kicks off at Schalke in the Bundesliga on Saturday many eyes will be on the fans behind the goals rather than the players on the field. Last week, away to Hoffenheim, Bayern fans unveiled a banner with 17 minutes to go which halted the match.

When the players returned, they played keep-ball for the rest of the game, which hardly mattered as league leader Bayern was six goals up. The key word in the banner was the German for "son of a bi**h" which has become a code for Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim's 79-year-old billionaire owner.

Bayern fans were showing support for the ultras at its great rival Borussia Dortmund, who used the inflammatory phrase to describe Hopp and was then banned by the German football federation (DFB) from travelling to games away at Hoffenheim.

Banners insulting Hopp and criticising the DFB for attacking terrace culture were also unveiled by Cologne and Union Berlin fans. The latter led to their game against Wolfsburg being interrupted. The previous week, the match between Borussia Moenchengladach and Hoffenheim was halted when home fans unveiled a banner showing Hopp in rifle crosshairs.

On Wednesday, when Schalke hosted Bayern in the German Cup, home fans unfurled a banner asking their opponents if they tried the same insult "will you stop playing so we'll get a penalty shootout?" Bayern won 1-0. Fans of second-division Bochum, a neighbour of both Schalke and Dortmund, moved the debate in a fresh direction in their draw with Sandhausen.

On its website, explaining to Hoffenheim fans, who have chanted their support for their owner with often robust language, how to get to Veltins Arena, Schalke made clear banners would be allowed. Schalke is enduring another season of unfulfilled promised, mired in sixth but already 10 points off the Champions League places. Hoffenheim is two points and two places further back, heights that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. Many will be anticipating the banners more than the mid-table action.

Key facts

8 - Bayern's unbeaten run, including 7 wins, since the winter break

6 - Goals Bayern scored in 73 minutes in its first game without Robert Lewandowski

22 - Goals Augsburg, Bayern's opponents, has conceded in last eight games

- LIGUE 1 -

This week has seen new doubts raised about Kylian Mbappe’s long-term future at Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), but the World Cup winner also underlined how vital he is to his club as it prepares for a make-or-break Champions League date with Borussia Dortmund.

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On Tuesday, the main story in sports daily L’Equipe wondered why Mbappe -- born in the French capital and brought up in the Paris suburbs -- was not revered by PSG supporters in the way former stars had been. One banner during a recent match at the Parc des Princes targeted Mbappe, Neymar and captain Thiago Silva, asking them if they were “afraid of winning” and urging them to “show some ba**s“.

The 21-year-old’s perceived arrogance -- encapsulated by his angry response to being substituted in a recent win over Montpellier -- surely does not help. By Wednesday, the focus had switched to reports that Mbappe and the club were on a potential collision course regarding the player’s possible participation at the Olympics, for which France has qualified for the first time since 1996.

Mbappe has in the past said playing at the Games was a “boyhood dream”. However, clubs are not obliged to release players for the Olympics and PSG has reportedly written to the French Football Federation to say it would now allow him to go.

But could preventing Mbappe from going to Tokyo only help push him towards the exit? Talk of Real Madrid’s interest in the striker never goes away. Nevertheless, probably the most important factor in Mbappe opting to stay or push for a move at the end of this season is PSG’s performance in the Champions League.

Trailing 2-1 from the first leg of its tie against Borussia Dortmund, the risk of a fourth successive exit in the last 16 is real. It is hard to see how the Qatar project in Paris would remain credible if it goes out in next week’s return match.

In the meantime, Mbappe made clear his importance to Thomas Tuchel’s team with a hat-trick in Wednesday’s 5-1 French Cup semifinal win at Lyon, including a stunning run from inside his own half for his second goal. It was a display which confirmed one thing: there is little stopping Mbappe on that form. On Saturday PSG goes to Strasbourg defending a 13-point lead at the top of Ligue 1, but for Mbappe and his club, all thoughts for now are on Dortmund.

Key stats

30 - Mbappe has scored 30 goals in all competitions this season in 32 appearances. He is on course to beat his total tally of 39 goals last season.

1 - PSG has taken just one point from a possible six away at Strasbourg in the last two seasons.

3 - Lyon has stumbled through much of the season but can climb to within three points of fourth-placed Lille if it makes it three straight wins when the sides meet on Sunday.

- SERIE A -

Italy’s Serie A resumes at the weekend, with matches played without spectators because of the coronavirus outbreak, after a turbulent fortnight of last-minute postponements, U-turns and squabbling.

The heavyweight Derby d’Italia clash between second-placed Juventus and third-placed Inter Milan, postponed from last Sunday, is one of six games which will be played on Sunday and Monday amid what is likely to be a surreal atmosphere. Ten Serie A games have been postponed altogether while others have gone ahead, leading to what some coaches and officials have described as a “distorted” competition.

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In-form Lazio has played twice since the crisis began, won both games and gone top with 62 points from 26 games. Second-placed Juventus has had one game called off and is two points behind while third-placed Inter has had two games postponed and has dropped six points behind Juve.

The teams will face a host of precautions which include not drinking from the same bottle, avoiding handshakes, using disposable wipes for turning on and off taps, disinfecting microphones before giving television interviews and avoiding selfies and autographs with fans.

Players will also be asked to avoid public places such as restaurants on their days off, according a report in Corriere dello Sport. Serie A said on Thursday that it will re-start with the six matches postponed last weekend, including Juventus v Inter Milan, which will be played in the prime Sunday night slot.

Other games will include AC Milan at home to Genoa and relegation-threatened Sampdoria at home to Verona on Sunday. There will be no games on Saturday evening. The 27th round of matches, which was originally scheduled for this weekend, will be put off to a future date, possibly May 13.

(With inputs from PTI, AFP and Reuters).

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