European Football preview: Madrid derby in focus, Leipzig wary of slip-up

La Liga topper Real Madrid will take on struggling Atletico in the Madrid derby, while RB Leipzig will be keen to maintain its lead in the Bundesliga table.

Zidane has transformed the fortunes of Real Madrid after his arrival at the end of the last season.   -  AP

LA LIGA

Real Madrid was supposedly in a mess last summer and Atletico Madrid about to challenge for the title but each have defied expectations ahead of their meeting at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.

With Real marching to the top of La Liga and Atletico languishing in fifth, the city derby this weekend is less a contest of rivals and more a moderately awkward assignment for the now title favourites.

A local derby can have a rhythm of its own, as shown by Espanyol in 20th holding Barcelona in first to a 2-2 draw earlier this month.

But Atletico will need a similar reversal of form, after four games without a win, in which it has lost to Eibar, drawn at home to Leganes - now last in La Liga - and been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Cultural Leonesa of Segunda B.

And as Atleti has floundered, Real has flourished, extending an unbeaten run to 20 matches, during which it has conceded only nine goals and scored 45.

In term of competitions, Real has won the Spanish Super Cup, pulled three points clear at the top of La Liga and eased into the cup quarterfinals, all without the injured Eden Hazard.

“We are top of the table again after being there a long time ago,” said captain Sergio Ramos.

“We have to keep going.” When Zinedine Zidane returned as coach almost a year ago, many questioned not only the timing but the wisdom of retaking charge of an ageing squad, seemingly on an unerring trajectory of decline.

Sceptics were initially proven right as results and performances failed to improve and when a disjointed transfer window fed into a 7-3 pre-season defeat to Atletico, the talk was less about winning trophies and more about Zidane losing his job.

Yet Zidane weathered the storm, his management by calm and charm recovering the players and restoring the steel that made Real Madrid such a fierce opponent when it was last crowned Spanish champion in 2017.

“Defensively what we are doing we are doing very well, it is our strength,” Zidane said last weekend.

Its transformation began at the back, where Atletico once owned the reputation for the most stubborn rearguard in Europe but in recent months even that defining characteristic has left the side.

In some ways, that was part of the plan, a new era centred instead on Joao Felix, where solidity in defence would give way a little to freedom of expression in attack.

Yet Felix, bought for 126 million euros, has only shown glimpses of his talent, a series of muted displays suggesting the 20-year-old was not ready to carry the weight of change on his shoulders.

“Every player has a different personality, every player needs a different amount of time,” coach Diego Simeone said, when asked about Felix earlier this month.

With Felix now injured, and not expected to recover from a hamstring tear for around a month, Atletico’s options are reduced, even if the youngster’s four goals in 24 appearances means the team will hardly miss his scoring record.

Instead, Simeone, who largely retains the support of the fans, must find both a replacement and a spark to jolt his side back into life.

Ten points looks too wide a gap to close in the league but Atletico will need some momentum to have any chance of upsetting Liverpool next month in the Champions League last 16.

A shock victory over Real Madrid, which it has not beaten in La Liga in four years, might be just what is needed, for Barcelona too, which now trails Real by three points after its loss last weekend away at Valencia.

Quique Setien received a welcome boost as Barca thrashed Leganes 5-0 on Thursday in the Copa del Rey and league games at home to Levante, which it faces on Saturday, Getafe and Eibar should now offer a chance to rebuild.

Sevilla, in third, is also at home to Alaves on Sunday, looking to recover itself after losing to Segunda’s Mirandes in the cup on Thursday. Getafe, in fourth, play away at Athletic Bilbao.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday: Villarreal v Osasuna (2000)

Saturday: Granada v Espanyol(1200), Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid (1500), Mallorca v Real Valladolid (1730), Valencia v Celta Vigo (2000)

Sunday: Leganes v Real Sociedad (1100), Eibar v Real Betis (1300), Athletic Bilbao v Getafe (1500), Sevilla v Alaves (1730), Barcelona v Levante (2000)

--------------------------------------------------

BUNDESLIGA

RB Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi says head coach Julian Nagelsmann was right to question his players’ desire in the Bundesliga title race, just before they face rival Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayern Munich in quick succession.

Leipzig’s lead over Bayern at the top was slashed to a single point last Saturday after it went down 2-0 at Eintracht Frankfurt, its first defeat in any competition since October.

Nagelsmann, its 32-year-old coach, responded to a disappointing performance by questioning whether his team has the right mentality to win the league for the first time in the club’s short history, calling it “still far from being a top team“.

“We need to decide whether or not we push towards the title, or whether we stay here, have something to eat and drink, and fall back into the pack,” he added.

RB Leipzig will be keen to bounce back to winning ways after its loss to Eintracht Frankfurt last weekend. Photo: REUTERS

 

Leipzig hosts third-placed Gladbach on Saturday, with a trip to face defending champion Bayern coming up next weekend.

“If you are completely honest, the coach was right,” Hungarian shot-stopper Gulacsi told AFP in Leipzig.

“We hadn’t implemented everything as we had discussed it during the week,” before the Frankfurt defeat.

“The coach chose the right moment, it was important, and right, to get the team fired up before this important phase against Moenchengladbach and Bayern.”

Leipzig entertains a Gladbach side sitting two points back in the title race, and any slip could let in Bayern, which faces struggler Mainz away on Saturday.

“We want a reaction. We want to bounce back, we want to show we have character,” said the 29-year-old Gulacsi, once on the books at Liverpool.

Leipzig won 3-1 away when the sides last met in August, but Gulacsi is wary of the threat posed by its attack, not least impressive French striker Alassane Plea.

“Their forward line has great speed and physical attributes, it’s going to be a difficult game, but we are ready and want the three points at home.”

Following the Frankfurt defeat, Leipzig’s stars were slammed by senior club figure Ralf Rangnick after a celebrity hairdresser flew over from England to give a group of players pre-match trims.

“After a game like that, it looks a bit unfortunate,” Gulacsi admitted.

“But the matter had no direct impact on the game and each player must know what he needs to get his best performance the next day.” After facing Gladbach and Bayern, Leipzig, which was only founded in 2009, plays its first ever Champions League knock-out tie against Tottenham Hotspur, with the first leg in London on February 19.

“This is a big test and opportunity for us, these are important games to send a signal to our rivals,” said Gulacsi.

“This is what you look forward to -- playing for the best places in the league and, to stay top, you have to beat your rivals.

“In the Champions League, these are the games we have been fighting to play in.”

One to watch: Erling Braut Haaland

After he scored five goals in his first two Borussia Dortmund appearances, German bookmakers are offering short odds on the ‘wunderkind’ scoring more goals on his own than Saturday’s opponent Union Berlin.

The 19-year-old scored twice off the bench in last Friday’s 5-1 trouncing of Cologne after claiming a hat-trick on his debut as a substitute in the 5-3 win at Augsburg.

“I just have to keep training and get into even better shape,” he warned after last week’s game.

Key stats

59 - The number of minutes Haaland has needed to score his five Bundesliga goals.

21 - The number of league goals scored by Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski. At the same point in 2015/16, when he netted a career-best 30 goals, the Pole had a mere 17.

24 - The combined tally of league goals scored by Gladbach’s attack of Plea, Breel Embolo, Patrick Herrmann and Marcus Thuram.

Fixtures (times 1430 GMT unless stated)

Friday: Hertha Berlin v Schalke (1930)

Saturday: Borussia Dortmund v Union Berlin, Hoffenheim v Bayer Leverkusen, Fortuna Duesseldorf v Eintracht Frankfurt, Mainz v Bayern Munich, Augsburg v Werder Bremen, RB Leipzig v Borussia Moenchengladbach (1730)

Sunday: Cologne v Freiburg, Paderborn v Wolfsburg (1700)

---------------------------------------------------

SERIE A

Antonio Conte’s new Premier League recruits have been settling nerves at title-chasing Inter Milan which travels to Udinese on Sunday looking to end a three-match Serie A winless run before its derby clash against city rival AC Milan.

Inter has brought in Christian Eriksen, Ashley Young and Victor Moses to keep the pressure on leader Juventus as the Chinese-owned club target a first Scudetto since 2010.

The pace of the season had taken its toll, however, and Inter is on a run of three consecutive 1-1 league draws against Atalanta, Lecce and Cagliari.

Lautaro Martinez was given a two-match ban for his late sending off against the Sardinians, and will miss Sunday’s game in Udine and the derby against AC Milan the following weekend.

Inter has reinforced its squad with the signings of Eriksen and Young from the Premier League. Photo: AP

 

Conte’s side are three points behind eight-time reigning champion Juventus, which slipped up last weekend with a 2-1 defeat at Napoli.

But it has recruited Tottenham midfielder Eriksen, 27, Nigerian Moses, 29, on loan from Chelsea and defender Young from Manchester United.

The trio have already helped Inter reach the Italian Cup semifinal with a win over Fiorentina at the San Siro midweek.

“When this opportunity came up I took it right away,” Young, 34, told Sky Sports Italia.

“Along with Eriksen and Moses we come from the Premier League and this is an opportunity to experience something different, both as a game and lifestyle.

“It’s important for a player to face new challenges.” Former Chelsea boss Conte had already signed Romelu Lukaku from United last summer and also have Alexis Sanchez on loan from the club.

“He’s a fantastic coach, he has won trophies, he has the ambition to win again and I also want to do it here,” added Young.

Eighth-placed AC Milan hosts Hellas Verona, two points below in ninth, on the cusp of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired revival.

Milan has taken ten points in four games since Ibrahimovic’s return to the club this month, and the Swede scored during the week to book a place in the Italian Cup semifinal.

Juventus missed the chance to open up a six-point lead at the top of the table with its shock defeat to coach Maurizio Sarri’s struggling former club Napoli.

The Turin giant hosts 13th-placed Fiorentina, which held it to a goalless draw in Tuscany in September.

Lazio has a chance to close the gap as it is just five points behind Juventus and two adrift of Inter, before hosting struggling SPAL.

Lazio’s 11-match winning streak ended in last weekend’s derby draw to Roma, but Simone Inzaghi’s side has a game in hand.

Roma travels to Sassuolo trying to hold the final Champions League berth ahead of Atalanta, one-point behind, in fifth after thumping Torino 7-0 last weekend.

The Bergamo side hosts Genoa with Torino travelling south to Lecce.

Napoli, in tenth, visits Sampdoria on Monday boosted after last weekend’s win and with defenders Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic and forward Dries Mertens back from injuries.

One to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo can push his scoring streak to nine consecutive league games. The Portuguese superstar, who this week became the first Instagram user to have 200 million followers, has found the net 12 times in his last eight Serie A games.

Key statistics

57 - Atalanta’s goals in 21 matches

31 - Points between Lazio and SPAL

12 - Napoli’s points of the Champions League 3 - Inter’s games without a win

3 - Juventus’s lead on Inter

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Saturday: Bologna v Brescia (1400), Cagliari v Parma (1700), Sassuolo v AS Roma (1945)

Sunday: Juventus v Fiorentina (1130), Atalanta v Genoa, Lazio v SPAL, AC Milan v Hellas Verona (all 1400), Lecce v Torino (1700), Udinese v Inter Milan (1945)

Monday: Sampdoria v Napoli (1945)

---------------------------------------------------------

LIGUE 1

Most footballers his age have long since hung up their boots, perhaps moved into management or punditry. But Vitorino Hilton, who turns 43 later this year, is still going strong.

Almost exactly 16 years after he first arrived in France, the Brazilian centre-back is set to lead out Montpellier on Saturday as it takes on the Paris Saint-Germain of Neymar.

They may be compatriots, but the difference between the world’s most expensive player and Hilton is so great they might as well come from separate planets.

Neymar missed PSG’s midweek game in the French Cup, taking time off to plan his 28th birthday celebrations, reportedly set for a 800-capacity Parisian nightclub on Sunday, with guests asked to dress all in white.

Hilton, meanwhile, captained a Montpellier side that was dumped out of the Cup in the last 16, losing on penalties to fourth-tier minnows Belfort.

Hilton has played almost every minute in the league for his club this season and shows no signs of slowing up. He wants to sign a new contract when his existing deal expires in the summer.

“I have played almost every match so far. I feel great. I want to continue for another year. We will see at the end of the season,” he said on Thursday.

A title winner with Marseille in 2010 and with Montpellier in 2012, Hilton is part of a side sitting fourth in Ligue 1 and hoping to qualify for Europe.

Montpellier has won its last three league games, but it does not come tougher than a visit to Paris. Thomas Tuchel’s side is unbeaten in its last 18 games and sit 10 points clear at the top of the table.

And there is Neymar, whose brace in last weekend’s win at Lille gave him 47 goals in 50 Ligue 1 appearances.

“He is unpredictable with, and without, the ball. You don’t know what he’s going to do,” said Hilton.

“Playing against Paris is unpredictable too, but we have a good team and there are reasons for us to be hopeful. If we do all we need to do together I think we can get at least a draw.”

Player to watch: Cesc Fabregas

Can the former Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea man still deliver at the highest level, or is he past it? While the Spanish star’s quality on the ball remains undimmed, does he really have the physical attributes required by a midfielder in Ligue 1?

Ex-Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim was not convinced, but new boss Robert Moreno -- who originates from Catalunya like Fabregas -- has started his compatriot in all three Ligue 1 games since taking over.

However, the midweek signings of promising young midfielders Aurelien Tchouameni and Youssouf Fofana, from Bordeaux and Strasbourg, show that the principality club know changes are required.

It will be interesting to see if Fabregas, 32, starts on Saturday as 13th-placed Monaco go esto Nimes.

Key stats

43 - The number of years since Marseille won a league game away to Bordeaux. OM have failed to win in 34 attempts in this fixture since a 2-1 success in October 1977, 18 days after Vitorino Hilton was born.

12 - The number of consecutive defeats losses by Toulouse, with 10 of them coming in the league. They are rock bottom.

11 - It is 11 years since Rennes had so many points (37) at this stage of the season. They are third going into Friday’s derby against Nantes. Will they go on to qualify for the Champions League for the first time?

Fixtures (GMT)

Friday: Rennes v Nantes (1945)

Saturday: Paris Saint-Germain v Montpellier (1630), Amiens v Toulouse, Angers v Reims, Dijon v Brest, Nimes v Monaco, Strasbourg v Lille (all 1900)

Sunday: Nice v Lyon (1400), Metz v Saint-Etienne (1600), Bordeaux v Marseille (2000)

--------------------------------------------------------

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :