Qualification for the Champions League has become so vital for the biggest clubs in Europe. The glitz and glamor of the continent’s premier club competition is envied by supporters around the world, but it is the prestige and the financial windfall that’s become so important in the fast-moving, modern game.
For teams that are regulars in the competition, dropping out can be a disaster. For those qualifying achieving qualification for the first time in years, it can act as a springboard on to bigger and better things.
So even though the focus at this late stage in the European season is typically on the battles at the very top and the very bottom, there are plenty of other things to be settled across the continent, especially when it comes to qualification for this wonderful competition.
This weekend, the Champions League fate of a host of teams could be decided. Fifth takes on fourth in the Premier League on Sunday, one of the form teams in Germany looks to cement their Champions League credentials and in Spain, the fifth placed side welcomes one of the three title challengers.
Elsewhere, there’s a real litmus test for the Premier League leaders and a city derby of epic proportions.
All kick off times are Eastern Time. Enjoy your weekend and enjoy the games!
Real Sociedad vs. Real Madrid
Will Real Madrid’s title challenge be extinguished at the Anoeta on Saturday? A tough game certainly lies in wait, as Real Sociedad have their eyes set on Champions League qualification for the second consecutive campaign.
The Erreala know that keeping pace with Athletic Bilbao is so, so important for them. They have some fine young players at the club, but if they are playing second tier European football next season, then the big boys will be honing in on some of that stellar talent. Carlos Vela and Antoine Griezmann in particular have enjoyed excellent seasons and both will be in high demand this summer.
As for Madrid, this game is a tricky one for Carlo Ancelotti. The play Borussia Dortmund in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal on Tuesday evening, and the pursuit of the decima looks to have taken priority over a faltering title campaign. So despite their handsome win in the first leg, Ancelotti may just alter the team selection a little against Sociedad.
It’ll be a dangerous tactic, especially when you consider some of the performances Sociedad have put in at home this campaign. They saw off Barcelona 3-1 back in February, and have only tasted defeat twice all season in front of their own supporters. Trailing Athletic by six points, Sociedad simply must win if they are to challenge the Champions League chasers in the final weeks of the campaign.
Borussia Dortmund vs. VFL Wolfsburg
Saturday, April 5, 12:30PM, GolTV
Wolfsburg’s Champions League charge looked to be fading a little when they went four games without a win at the start of March. But back-to-back wins at the end of the month against Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt have thrust them right back into contention for a top four place.
They travel to face a Dortmund side that were run ragged by a rampant Real Madrid team in midweek. Die Borussien have suffered with a cacophony of injuries during this campaign, and their erratic form is testament to Jurgen Klopp’s inability to field a regular XI. Frustration got the better of the Dortmund boss in an interview following the loss to Real, and he’ll be looking for a big response from his team this weekend.
But it’ll be tough against Wolfsburg, who clearly have much more at stake in this one. Dortmund are secure in second place, whilst Wolfsburg trail fourth place Leverkusen by just one point in the race for the Champions League. Die Wolfe are a streaky team, capable of putting together prolonged runs of wins and defeats, and they’ll be hoping their recent consecutive wins can pave the way for a strong finish to the campaign.
Dortmund’s record at home has been especially poor as of late, too. They’ve won just two of their last eight Bundesliga games at the Westfalenstadion, so the visitors will definitely fancy their chances.
Everton vs. Arsenal
Sunday, April 6, 8:30AM, NBCSN
A huge game for Everton and Roberto Martinez, as they look to overhaul Arsenal in the battle for a Champions League spot.
The Gunners haven’t won in their last three games and go into this one knowing an Everton win would see their Champions League fate out of their own hands. In games against the top sides in the division, Arsenal have crumbled on the road. The conceded 17 goals in their three away games against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, and Everton will be looking to capitalize on their hesitancy on Sunday.
Indeed, the Toffees come into this one in sparkling form. They’ve won their last five on the bounce in the Premier League, but go into this one knowing only a win will do. Arsenal’s run-in is considerably more straightforward, so Everton need to put pressure on them here.
Typically, Everton have crumbled in these big pressure games in years gone by; the manager, the players and the fans need to step up here. The Champions League would do wonders for the Merseyside club and it’s an opportunity that might not come about again for many years given the unprecedentedly unpredictable nature of this Premier League campaign.
But Arsenal have been in this situation before. They may have injuries but remain a quality outfit regardless. Plus, they haven’t tasted defeat at Goodison Park since a 1-0 loss in 2007. Perhaps they’re due one?
I’ll be at this one, so look out for my column next week in which I’ll do my best to give you a raw insight into a “big” Premier League game.
West Ham United vs. Liverpool
Sunday, April 6, 11:00AM, CNBC
Speaking to Liverpool supporters, it’s not the games against Chelsea and Manchester City that they are worried about in their quest for the Premier League title. It’s games away from home, especially this one against West Ham, that raise concerns.
Liverpool know they have a great chance of marching on to the Premier League title now. Win all of their remaining six games and it’s theirs. They go to Upton Park on the back of an eight game winning run. They’re bossing games, scoring goals and playing with an unyielding swagger. You’d have to say, Liverpool look like title favorites at the minute.
But West Ham will provide a test. This season, if there has been a weakness in Brendan Rodgers’ team, it’s defensively. Especially if they’re up against a big, physical forward. Former Red Andy Carroll will provide exactly that kind of threat and you suspect he’ll be right up for this one after Liverpool offloaded him this summer.
West Ham bagged a vital win against Sunderland on Monday which means they’re all but certain to avoid relegation. Will they play with freedom knowing their Premier League status is secure? Or will they be on the proverbial beach when the league leaders come to town?
Either way, if Liverpool play to their best they should be taking the three points back to Merseyside. It’ll be intriguing to see how they handle the pressure of being league leaders.
Galatasaray vs. Fenerbahce
Sunday, April 6, Noon, Not available on US TV; check live streaming options
The Istanbul derby is always a contest well worth watching. There a few places in the world that you will see levels of fandom to rival the passion you see in the stands when Galatasaray and Fenerbahce go head-to-head.
Fenerbahce are storming clear atop of the Turkish Superliga, and Galatasaray must win if they are to retain any faint hopes of winning the title. Roberto Mancini’s teams’ form has suffered because of their Champions League exploits, but their home record remains pretty formidable going into this one. They’ve won 10, drawn two and lost just one of their games at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium this season.
But their great rivals have been a class apart this campaign. After beating Gala back in November, they’ve raced clear at the top winning five of their last six domestic games. Their attacking trio of Dirk Kuyt, Moussa Sow and Emmanuel Emenike have really clicked into gear, scoring a combined 32 goals. They look set to waltz to the title, but a win at the home of their fiercest rivals would be the cherry on top of what’s been a superb season.