European Football Preview: Table-toppers look to break away from rest of the pack

Barcelona and Real Madrid look to seal full points ahead of Clasico, while Bayern Munich and Juventus look to get their campaigns back on track.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have to be cautious in the La Liga this weekend ahead of the mid-week El Clasico.   -  Getty Images

The UEFA Champions League and Europa League don't return until March 2020. So the focus of teams would be completely on the domestic leagues for the next three months.

Let's look at some of the key talking points ahead of another matchweek in Europe's top five leagues:

- La Liga: El Clasico leaves Real Madrid and Barca vulnerable to distractions -

Barcelona and Real Madrid could be playing to be first in La Liga over the Christmas break on Wednesday but both are at risk of pre-Clasico defeats if their focus wavers this weekend.

There are few tougher fixtures in the league than Barca's away at free-flowing fourth-placed Real Sociedad on Saturday or Madrid's trip on Sunday to a revived Valencia, which has won three games on the bounce and beat Ajax in Amsterdam to win its group in the Champions League.

Already qualified in Europe, Barcelona and Real Madrid had the luxury of rotating key players in midweek but as the emphasis shifts towards their crunch meeting at Camp Nou, the danger is that they underestimate the tasks in front of them. Both have hit their stride in recent weeks, pulling away from the chasing pack while leaving behind early-season bumps that had placed the futures of their coaches in doubt.

 

Barcelona has won 13 of its last 15 games and seven out of its last seven, a run that has coincided with the return to form and fitness of Lionel Messi, who has 14 goals and two hat-tricks in his last 11 matches. Madrid, meanwhile, has won nine out of its last 12, If its own surge has been slightly less consistent than Barca's in terms of results, its performances have been more convincing. In its last 10 games, it has scored 28 goals and conceded only five.

In normal circumstances, both might therefore have been expected to come away from Anoeta and Mestalla with victories but each have reason to be wary. Off the pitch, the threat of political unrest around the Clasico lingers, with Catalan independence demonstrations expected at Camp Nou both before and during the game next week.

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu called for calm on Thursday and insisted the match would not be postponed again but, with families and friends in the city and likely to attend the game, it would be understandable if his players' minds were not fully on football this weekend. Valencia and Real Sociedad are hardly opponents to be taken lightly either.

- SIGNS OF RESURGENCE -

Under Albert Celades, Valencia is showing signs of a resurgence, having won six out of its last eight, the two slips owing to a last-minute goal against Real Betis and a hatful of chances missed against Chelsea. At Mestalla, it has lost only once in its last five meetings with Real Madrid.

Real Sociedad, meanwhile, has arguably been the most attractive team to watch in the division this season, even if its strong start has faded in recent weeks. It will also attack Barcelona, who have repeatedly been proven vulnerable against sides with pace and ambition on the break.

A slip for either of the top two could play into the hands of Sevilla, which is at home to Villarreal on Sunday, or Atletico Madrid, which hosts Osasuna on Saturday, fresh from its morale-boosting win over Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League. Getafe, in fifth, plays the early game on Sunday at home to Real Valladolid.

 

- Bundesliga: Christmas looms, but Bayern vow “no more gifts” in title race -

The festive season is looming, but Bayern Munich midfielder Joshua Kimmich insists the defending champion must not give away any more points in the Bundesliga title race. Back-to-back defeats at home to Leverkusen and last Saturday at leader Borussia Monchengladbach leave Bayern seventh in the German league table.

“We have nothing more to give away,” insisted Kimmich after Bayern won its first match in its last three with a 3-1 victory over Tottenham on Wednesday. That made it the first German club to win all six group games in a Champions League season.

Bayern trails Gladbach by seven points ahead of Saturday's home match against Werder Bremen. However, at exactly the same stage of last season it was nine points behind Dortmund, but gradually eroded the gap to win a seventh straight league title by two points in May.

Defending Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich is seven points behind current leader Borussia Monchengladbach.   -  Bongarts

 

After squandering numerous chances in their recent league defeats, interim coach Hansi Flick said the win over Jose Mourinho's Spurs was a “sign that we could turn our chances into a win”. There was good news on Thursday when examination showed the knee injury Kingsley Coman picked up against Spurs was not as bad as expected. Even so, Bayern has not said how long the French winger will be sidelined for.

Bremen is struggling in 14th place after picking up just 14 points in as many games. Werder has lost its last 20 games against Bayern and its last win at the Allianz Arena was back in September 2008. Nevertheless, head coach Florian Kohfeldt, 37, says Bremen is determined to take points to stave off relegation woes and is fired up to poach a rare win in Munich.

“We want to be angry. We have to be angry,” he said in regards to their low ranking in the table. “You can either bury your head and hope things improve or you get really angry and convert it into energy.”

Bayern rested Robert Lewandowski against Spurs and, as the star Poland striker failed to score in its recent league defeats, he will be eager to add to his 27 goals in 22 games in all competitions this season. Leader Gladbach is at Wolfsburg on Sunday with two of its summer singings already repaying the club.

France Under-21 winger Marcus Thuram, signed from relegated French league side Guingamp, won the decisive penalty in last Saturday's 2-1 win over Bayern. The spot kick was converted by left-back Ramy Bensebaini, signed out of relative obscurity from Ligue 1 team Rennes.

KEY STATS:

21 - Wins Mueller has enjoyed for Bayern in 23 games over Bremen, alongside two draws and no defeats.

16 - Times Lewandowski has scored in the league this season, identical to his tally of 16 goals in 19 matches against Bremen during his career.

6 - Goals Jadon Sancho has scored, creating three more, in his last five games, proving Dortmund's teenage England winger is back on form for the visit to Mainz on Saturday.

 

- 'Sad' Inter return to Serie A title chase as Gattuso takes Napoli reins -

Inter Milan turns its focus back to the Serie A title chase after its Champions League flop while Gennaro Gattuso begins life as Napoli coach trying to end its seven-game winless run in Italian league action this weekend. Inter was the only one of Italy's four Champions League teams to fail to make the knockout rounds after a 2-1 defeat against Barcelona in the San Siro.

Inter Milan is two points ahead of Juventus in the 2019-20 Serie A standings.

 

Antonio Conte's league leader, which has a two-point advantage over champion Juventus, travels to 13th-placed Fiorentina, with its focus on claiming a first Serie A title since 2010. Inter stars Romelu Lukaku (ten) and Lautaro Martinez (eight) have between them scored as many goals as the entire Fiorentina squad this season, with the Tuscan side on a run of four consecutive defeats.

“I saw much disappointment in the players' eyes and I was sad about that. We have to raise our heads again,” said Conte. “We have two games to go before the Christmas break and hopefully we can bring back some players from injury.”

Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus hosts Udinese, in 16th, on Sunday after its unbeaten run ended last weekend against Lazio in Rome. Portuguese star Ronaldo has scored in his last three games including the midweek Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen.

In a battle between third and fourth, in-form Lazio and Cagliari go head-to-head. Simone Inzaghi's Lazio can extend its winning streak to eight consecutive games but Cagliari is unbeaten in the league since September 1. Just behind, Roma hosts rock bottom SPAL needing to win to keep in touch, as does Atalanta, which travels to Bologna after reaching the Champions League last 16 in its first season in Europe.

In seventh, Napoli is eight points off the Champions League places. A winless league run stretching back to October 19 cost Carlo Ancelotti his job, despite a thumping 4-0 win over Genk in Europe this week. Gattuso, 41, takes over from his former AC Milan mentor Ancelotti, and his first game is at the San Paolo Stadium against Parma.

 

“This is a team that cannot miss the Champions League and the goal is to regain the ground that separates us from the top places,” said Gattuso. “Ancelotti is like a father to me. He also gave me advice on how to help the team,” continued the former Glasgow Rangers player."

“I could not have wished for a better team, I have players available who marry perfectly with my tactical idea. I think this team can swim against the current. Napoli is a big sea where you can drown. But those who know me, know that I am not afraid of anything.”

AC Milan hosts Sassuolo chasing a third consecutive win for the first time this season to move up from tenth place. Genoa hosts city rival Sampdoria in a relegation battle.

KEY STATS:

200 - Gennaro Gattuso's games as a coach since 2013

50 - Brescia striker Mario Balotelli's Serie A goals

17 - Napoli's points off leader Inter Milan

13 - Cagliari's unbeaten run

7 - Napoli's league games without a win

6 - Sampdoria's unbeaten run against Genoa

2 - Points been leader Inter Milan and Juventus

 

- Ligue 1: Neymar rounding into form as Marseille give chase -

Neymar's steady return to form after an injury-plagued 2019 coincides with Paris Saint-Germain push to finish the year clear of old rival Marseille, which is enjoying its best Ligue 1 run since 2014. The Brazilian orchestrated a late comeback at Montpellier last weekend and then marked his first Champions League start in exactly 12 months with a goal and two assists in Wednesday's 5-0 demolition of Galatasaray.

Already assured of top spot in its group, PSG coach Thomas Tuchel opted to start Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, along with Mauro Icardi, to give the planet's two most expensive players another chance to find its groove.

PSG is five points ahead of second-placed Marseille in the Ligue 1 table, with a game in hand.   -  Getty Images

 

“We have to rest to get back on track in Ligue 1 but we can think about the Champions League, which is our ultimate goal,” Neymar told RMC Sport after the game.

The 27-year-old has yet to fully placate the Parc des Princes faithful after a summer of uncertainty surrounding his future in the French capital. A smattering of jeers greeted Neymar in PSG's last home league game against Nantes, but further displays such as that in midweek should help erase any residual bitterness.

“I know I wasn't there last year in February. We're going to have to think of the supporters,” Neymar said. “What makes me happy is being able to play. As long as I have a ball, a nice pitch and team-mates, I have everything I need.”

PSG, which has a game in hand, travels to Saint-Etienne in Sunday's late kick-off, by which time Marseille could have slashed the gap at the top to just two points. Andre Villas-Boas has overseen a run of six straight wins at Marseille, a sequence that began following a 4-0 loss to PSG in late October.

OM will hope to recall leading scorer Dario Benedetto for Saturday's trip to Metz after the Argentine missed the 3-1 win over Bordeaux with a thigh complaint.

KEY STATS:

3 to 5 - the number of months Nice full-back Youcef Atal, an Africa Cup of Nations winner with Algeria, is expected to miss after damaging the meniscus in his right knee.

7 - the number of consecutive losses for Toulouse, which is bottom of the table behind Nimes on goal difference.

100 - the number of goals scored at club level by Mbappe. He has netted 73 times for PSG since leaving Monaco in 2017.

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