European preview: Rollercoaster La Liga, Juve-Inter duel in focus

Inter Milan's hundred per cent record will be put to test when it hosts champion Juventus, while La Liga seeks to mark out a serious title contender.

Inter Milan has emerged as a threat to champion Juventus under new manager Antonio Conte.   -  REUTERS

Rollercoaster start leaves La Liga awaiting serious contenders

Real Madrid has hardly got going and Granada has just arrived but La Liga's chaotic opening few weeks means they face each other in an unlikely battle of first against second on Saturday.

By the end of the eighth round in Spain, seven teams could potentially go into the international break at the top of the table, with Athletic Bilbao in seventh, only three points behind Madrid at the summit.

In between, Barcelona sits fourth and Sevilla sixth, with those two also up against each other at Camp Nou on Sunday. Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad complete the group of early front-runners.

None have truly convinced after a merry-go-round of results against each other that leaves few patterns and many doubts.

Madrid beat Sevilla but was held by Atletico while Granada beat Barcelona but lost to Sevilla. Real Sociedad beat Atletico but lost to Bilbao and Sevilla, which beat Granada and la Real but lost to Real Madrid.

Bilbao, which visits Celta Vigo on Sunday, has not lost to any of the leading seven while Barcelona and Atletico, last season's champion and runner-up, have not beaten any of them.

“La Liga is complicated for everyone right now,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone last month. “Everyone is trying to build some momentum.”

After two years of domestic disappointment, Zinedine Zidane said in April the league would be Madrid's priority this season and it remains unbeaten, approaching Granada and has three consecutive clean sheets in the league.

Yet aside from an excellent win away at Sevilla last month, Zidane's team have looked laboured, particularly at the Santiago Bernabeu, where the tension and frustration in the stands has regularly taken hold on the pitch.

Eden Hazard has been sluggish and the midfield stodgy. Thibaut Courtois in goal was whistled on Tuesday, his popularity with the fans still to be established.

Madrid was held 2-2 by Club Brugge in the Champions League in midweek. If Granada was watching, it may have concluded there is little to fear this weekend.

'Angry' Inter tackles Juventus for Serie A supremacy

Antonio Conte warned Inter Milan was angry at its defeat to Barcelona and ready to fight to maintain its Serie A supremacy against his former club Juventus in this weekend's top-of-the-table clash at the San Siro.

Inter, riding high with a perfect run of six wins, plays at home to the defending champion, which is two points behind, on Sunday.

“We are hurting,” said Conte after falling to a 2-1 Champions League defeat in the Camp Nou despite Lautaro Martinez's second minute goal. “There is bitterness and anger at the result. All we can do now is lick our wounds and prepare for Sunday's match, but I saw courage and character.”

Conte, 50, knows his rival well having coached Juventus to the first three of its current run of eight titles, before going on to coach the Italian national team followed by two seasons at Chelsea.

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Antonio Conte was frustrated by Inter Milan's defeat to Barcelona in midweek, but his side has the incentive of extending its two-point lead atop the Serie A when it faces defending champion Juventus on Sunday.   -  Getty Images

 

Meanwhile, Juventus has been boosted ahead of the 'Derby d'Italia' after with a confident 3-0 win over European rival Bayer Leverkusen.

A win would allow Inter to move five points clear of Maurizio Sarri's second-placed champion.

Inter Milan forward Romelu Lukaku remains doubtful, however, after a minor thigh injury ruled him out of the trip to Spain. Lukaku has scored three goals in his first seven games since moving from Manchester United.

Atalanta, in third place, heads south to Lecce in Italy's heel, after losing its first Champions League home game against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Behind in fourth, Serie A runner-up Napoli faces a tricky trip north to Torino, which is desperate to avoid a fourth defeat in seven games.

Troubled AC Milan travels to Genoa with the future of both clubs' coaches on the line. Marco Giampaolo's Milan is 16th, one point above the relegation zone, after losing four of its first six games, with Aurelio Andreazzoli's Genoa third from bottom.

Lazio heads north to Bologna where it is unbeaten in its last 12 games.

Fans from both clubs are planning a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca overlooking the city, for Bologna Sinisa Mihajlovic, a former Lazio star player, who is battling cancer.

City rival Roma hosts Cagliari with the Sardinians on an unbeaten four-game run but without a win over the capital side since 2013.

Meanwhile, Sassuolo's scheduled game on Friday against Brescia has been postponed following the death of long-serving club owner Giorgio Squinzi, at the age of 76.

Dortmund told to get ruthless to stay in title race

Borussia Dortmund has been urged to rediscover its killer instinct, and silence lingering doubts about a lack of ruthlessness, in order to stay in the Bundesliga title race this weekend.

Back-to-back draws against mid-table teams Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen — having been ahead on both occasions — left Dortmund eighth in the table.

It is just three points behind leader Bayern Munich in a tightly-packed top half, with five teams just a point behind the defending champion.

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Lucien Favre will be keen to see his team return to winning ways after drawing its last two league fixtures against Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen.   -  Getty Images

 

Bayern hosts mid-table Hoffenheim on Saturday hunting a fifth straight win, boosted by Tuesday's stunning 7-2 away romp at Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League. Dortmund needs a win at third-placed Freiburg on Saturday to stay in touch.

Having won 2-0 at Slavia Prague on Wednesday in the Champions League, a second victory in four days would put Dortmund's Bundesliga campaign back on track.

Goalkeeper Roman Burki has said the team must 'man up' and get ruthless in Freiburg, a notoriously hard place to pick up three points.

“We aren't playing like men. The killer instinct up front is missing,” he raved after the draw with Bremen on Sunday.

With Mats Hummels restored to the team after a back injury, Dortmund's defence should be tighter at Freiburg. Reus reacted angrily when a Sky reporter recently asked if the team had a mentality problem and midfielder Axel Witsel batted off a similar question after the Bremen draw.

“Oh man, don't ask me that — mentality isn't the problem,” insisted the Belgium star, but doubts still linger.

Chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke agreed with Burki that Dortmund must get ruthless, even at the expense of its attack-minded football, to grind out wins.

“I believe that we must stop being in love with our own football - instead, we should be in love with winning,” Watzke told Munich-based daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “That's what it's all about.”

Watzke says Dortmund's ultimate goal must be to end Bayern's run of seven straight league titles, “we're trying everything”.

'Less scary' PSG face challenge of surprising Angers

First place in Ligue 1 will be on the line on Saturday when leader Paris Saint-Germain hosts its surprising challenger Angers at Parc des Princes.

With many of its traditional rivals, notably Lyon, Monaco and Marseille, languishing in the lower half of the table, PSG has moved two points clear with a string of narrow victories.

Since the start of September, PSG has only won one game by more than one goal. That was am impressive 3-0 home victory over Real Madrid in the Champions League.

It has won three of its last four Ligue 1 matches 1-0, with Neymar scoring a late winner each time: in the 70th minute against Bordeaux, the 87th minute at Lyon and two minutes into added time against Strasbourg. Yet in its last home game it lost 2-0 to mid-table Reims.

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Thomas Tuchel will like to see his team extend its lead atop the Ligue 1 table. Currently two points ahead, PSG can move five points clear before the international break should it beat Angers.   -  Getty Images

 

PSG, which has scored more than 100 goals in each of the last two seasons, have hit just 13 in eight matches. Angers has scored 16.

It could be that Neymar has to shoulder the attacking load alone once more as the recently returned Kylian Mbappe is an injury doubt for Saturday.

Stephane Moulin, the Angers manager, believes the long sequence of injuries, notably to Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani, has blunted PSG.

“They have been a little less scary for the past six months, because they have had a lot of players missing,” said Moulin, who has been in charge since 2011, longer than any other manager in the big five European Leagues.

Lyon meanwhile makes the 60km trip to Saint-Etienne for the match known simply as 'Le Derby' but it will not be taking any fans with it. The local police has banned them saying there is a “proven” risk of confrontation. The authorities in Lyon banned Saint-Etienne fans last November.

While Lyon, which has finished in the top four in 20 of the last 21 seasons, is an embarrassing 11th in the 20-team division its ancient enemy is one point but, significantly, eight places worse off.

Manager Ghislain Printant seemed doomed since his team was humiliated at Angers on September 22. He was on the bench as Saint-Etienne hosted Wolfsburg in the Europa League on Thursday, but it the only question might be whether Saint-Etienne can bring in a replacement by Sunday.

Jean-Louis Gasset, who retired as Saint-Etienne manager after last season, and the much-travelled Antoine Kombouare, are being linked with the post. The most intriguing suggestion is Claude Puel, fired by Leicester in February. He would probably be happy the ban would prevent a reunion with Lyon fans. He managed the club for three seasons from 2008 to 2011.

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