As much as this time of year clearly takes a physical toll on our favorite footballers, if we’re being selfish it’s still the best time of the season to consume the Beautiful Game, isn’t it?
This weekend’s selections perfectly encapsulate what are intriguing situations across European football at the moment, with serious title races seemingly on the cards in Spain, Germany, England, Italy and France; one match from each league makes up the latest Top 5.
All kick offs are in Eastern time. Enjoy the weekend and enjoy the games!
Barcelona vs. Valencia
Back-to-back wins in La Liga have helped Barcelona steady the ship somewhat in recent weeks, but Valencia will be keen to plunge the Catalans back into crisis ahead of Christmas.
The Blaugrana may not have been anywhere near their free-flowing best in recent wins over Levante and Real Sociedad, although they are wins that’ll give under-pressure manager Ronald Koeman some room to breathe in the weeks to come.
Still, given their start to the season, there’s now an onus on Barcelona to be almost perfect if they’re to become a serious challenger for the La Liga title this term. Going into the weekend matches they are still six points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, having played a match more than the capital club.
Valencia are in need of a spark to get their season going again, with no wins in their last four. They’ve shown they can mix it with the top sides already this season though, with a 4-1 win over defending champions Real Madrid undoubtedly the highlight of their campaign.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich
Saturday, December 19, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
When we think of potential title challengers to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, the mind immediately leaps to RB Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund. But it’s a different contender who has emerged as possible rivals to the champions ahead of a meeting with them this weekend.
Indeed, it’s Bayer Leverkusen leading the way in the German top flight. Despite the summer sales of key men in Kevin Volland and Kai Havertz, Leverkusen have found a way to flourish and in Leon Bailey, they have a rejuvenated winger who is one of the most exciting players in the division at the moment.
Bayern haven’t been absolutely at it as of late either. In midweek they needed goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to make an inspired save to help them through to a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg and Leverkusen will be out to seize on some of the vulnerabilities that have been on show occasionally in recent weeks.
The champions are still heavy favorites for the title as things stand, but if Leverkusen can land another blow on them here and move four points clear of them, then perhaps we can get excited about an overdue fight to the wire at the top of the Bundesliga.
Manchester United vs. Leeds United
16 years on from their relegation from the top flight, Leeds United will renew their rivalry with Manchester United in the Premier League again on Sunday.
The two sides have met in cup competitions since and have won one game apiece—Leeds’ 1-0 win at Manchester United in 2010 in the FA Cup being the most memorable—but it’s been a while since the overall quality gap between these two sides was so small.
Leeds have been the great entertainers of this Premier League season and after some tough results they were able to hit their stride again in midweek, hammering Newcastle United 5-2. The intensity with which Marcelo Bielsa’s side played and the attacking combinations they were able to strike will have the Red Devils on alert.
As for United, on Thursday they battled to a 3-2 win over Sheffield United to keep in touch at the top of the Premier League table. Despite their issues this season, they are just five points back on leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.
Lazio vs. Napoli
Sunday, December 20, 2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN+
With the Serie A title race seemingly wide open this season, Lazio and Napoli will not want to be left behind by the pack of sides fighting for top spot.
At the moment it’s Lazio, who were in the race for the Scudetto for so long in 2019-20, who are in danger of missing out on the fight. Simone Inzaghi’s team have yet to find any real form in the early weeks of the campaign and lack the pinpoint balance that made them such a hard side to get the better of last season.
It’s why Napoli, who are in fourth and six points clear of Lazio in ninth, are the slight favourites heading to the Stadio Olimpico. Inter did a job on them last weekend in a 1-0 win, but overall Gennaro Gattuso’s team has the firepower to match almost any side in the top flight.
For Napoli, a win here would be of huge significance and would signify their seriousness as a possible challenger to Juventus, Inter and leaders AC Milan. If Lazio want to be included in that conversation, they need to put together a positive run of results from somewhere and Sunday would be a great place to start.
Lille vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Like Bayern and Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain are currently struggling to assert their dominance on a domestic league they’ve long dominated.
And like Bayern, this weekend PSG will face the team that’s taken a surprise lead. Lille have been fantastic as of late and their third win in a row on Wednesday—a 2-0 victory at Dijon—ensured they went into this weekend’s enormous clash as the league leaders too.
In previous seasons, you’d expect PSG to pick up their game and find a way to win in this fixture. However, with Neymar sidelined and the team seemingly struggling to maintain focus at crucial points in matches, it feels as though Lille have an excellent chance of extending their advantage over the defending champions to four points.
PSG still possess superior quality though and manager Thomas Tuchel would’ve been encouraged to see Moise Kean and Kylian Mbappe on the scoresheet against Lorient on Wednesday with their Brazilian star set for a spell on the sidelines.
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