After a festive hiatus, domestic football is back in earnest across Europe.
Whilst the Premier League continued to plough on through the December months, the vast majority of European leagues underwent a winter break. Most of the major leagues have either resumed or will be resuming this weekend and for many sides, this set of games marks the start of the season run-in.
And what a selection of games we have to look forward to this weekend. La Liga plays host to what is arguably the biggest domestic game in European football so far this season, not to mention a clash between two teams chasing Champions League football for next year.
We’ve also the biggest game in Portuguese football, a real test for an under pressure boss and two free-scoring Premier League sides locking horns.
So settle in for the weekend and if like myself you’re still desperately trying to cling onto those New Year resolutions, why not indulge in some top class football?
All kick off times are in Eastern Time. Enjoy the games!
Manchester United vs. Swansea City
Saturday, January 11, 12:30PM, NBC (free over-the-air network)
It’s not been the best of weeks for David Moyes. After three consecutive defeats in three different competitions, morale within the United camp seems to be at an all-time low. But they need to dust themselves down and go again as they welcome Swansea to Old Trafford for the second time in the space of six days.
Deprived of star strikers Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney, United have looked toothless in attack. Combine this with the revolving door of defenders that seem to be coming in and out of the backline, they look a team who can be gotten at currently. Moyes will be hoping to have at least one of the aforementioned talismanic figures fit for this one, but a vast improvement is required in all areas of the team if the champions are to get back to winning ways.
In the furore following United’s cup exit on Sunday evening, the contribution of Michael Laudrup’s Swansea side has gone somewhat overlooked. The played with confidence, purpose and aggression at Old Trafford. Their first goal was of outstanding quality and after triumphing a mere six days earlier, they have nothing to fear going into this one.
After running riot in their last encounter, the rejuvenated figure of Wilfred Bony will no doubt fancy notching another goal; he’s scored three times in his previous two Premier League games.
Moyes received a colossal show of support from the United faithful at Sunderland in midweek. But another loss here would surely put doubts in the mind of even his staunchest backers.
Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona
As if this game wasn’t big enough as it is, Lionel Messi looks set to make his La Liga return for Barcelona.
Los Coloncheros and La Blaugrana are deadlocked atop of the table in Spain and with the premier sides scarcely dropping points in this division, this game could be wholly significant in determining the destination of the title come May.
And it’s such a tough one to call. Atletico’s exploits this season have been absolutely marvellous and it is only at the mid point of the campaign that they have been considered genuine title contenders. A win here on their own patch – where they have won every domestic game so far this season – and they may well be favourites to win a ninth Spanish title.
Their manager Diego Simeone has fashioned a dynamic, pragmatic and industrious team that have took La Liga by storm. And when you sprinkle on the stardust provided by the likes of Koke, Arda Turan and Diego Costa, they really are an outstanding outfit.
But are they as outstanding as a Barcelona team boosted by the return of Lionel Messi? The Argentinian played his first game back from injury in the midweek Copa Del Rey game against Getafe and bagged a brace after being introduced as a second half substitute. Anyway it’s not as if Tata Martino’s side have been struggling without him, having won their last seven games in a row.
A truly magnificent game lies in wait at the Vicente Calderon.
Newcastle United vs. Manchester City
Sunday, January 12, 9:05AM, NBCSN
After a wonderful run of games up until boxing day which saw the Toon Army win seven games from nine in the Premier League, Newcastle supporters have been brought back down to earth with a bump over the new year period.
Consecutive 1-0 defeats against Arsenal and West Brom in the Premier League were followed by heartache in the FA Cup as the Magpies fell foul of Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s Cardiff City team.
Next up for them is juggernaut Manchester City, who will make the trip to the North-East on the back of a 6-0 thrashing of West Ham in the League Cup semifinal. Even without the mercurial Kun Aguero, City have moved ominously through the gears in recent weeks. They have won eight and drawn one of their last nine league games and with Arsenal not playing until Monday night, a win here would see them top the table come Sunday evening.
Newcastle remains a very difficult place to go, but it is a stadium in which City have happy recent memories. They won at Newcastle in the Carling Cup earlier this season, and have also won 2-0 on their last two league visits. Most notably back in 2012, when Yaya Toure’s brace all but secured Manchester City the league title.
SL Benfica vs. FC Porto
Sunday, January 12, 11:00AM, online streaming
Billed as “O Classico”, not only is this the biggest fixture in Portuguese football, but it looks set to have a major say on the destination of the Liga Sagres title come the end of the campaign.
Currently these two trail Sporting Lisbon atop of the division, but only on goal difference with all three teams are tied on 33 points as the league starts up again after the mid-season break. It’s as tight as it comes at the top of the league, and these sides two know more than most exactly why every point matters in the title race.
The Aguia and the Dragoes met in the penultimate game of the season in the previous campaign and a last minute winner from Porto’s Kelvin ousted Benfica from the top spot and in doing so practically secured the league title for Vitor Pereira’s team.
This is the first time the two sides have met since that dramatic encounter and playing at the Estadio Da Luz, Benfica will be keen to steal a march on their great rivals. The Aguia have perhaps been functional rather than fluent this season, but a good performance and victory here could really spark their campaign into life.
But Porto are tough to beat, having only lost one game in their last 67 in the Portuguese first division. With the prolific Jackson Martinez leading the line, they will be hopeful of inflicting more misery on the old enemy.
Villarreal vs Real Sociedad
It’s sixth against fifth in La Liga on Monday evening, with both sides within touching distance of Athletic Bilbao who currently occupy that final Champions League spot.
These two sides met recently in the Copa Del Rey, but having rested a few of their key players, the result was a somewhat predictable 0-0. Much more lies on the league encounter however and both sides look set to unleash their respective attacking talent following a few days rest.
Real Sociedad will arrive at the Madrigal as one of the form teams in Spain. Five consecutive victories have catapulted them up the standings into fifth place and now they must be considered genuine contenders to secure a second consecutive Champions League qualifying slot.
Their star-man as of late has undoubtedly been Antoine Grizemann and his return of 12 goals from 16 La Liga appearances means El Submarino Amarillo will have to keep a close eye on him.
But newly promoted Villarreal have been surprising people all season and will be keen to stay in touch with both Sociedad and Bilbao. They must improve their home record though, having failed to win in their last five outings on their own patch.
What games will you be watching this weekend? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball