The top leagues in Latin America are entering their decisive stages, promising a thrilling weekend of action throughout the continent. And though several state champions have already been crowned in Brazil, the championships in Sao Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais are still very much in the balance. Over in Argentina the pressure is on the leaders to hold firm, while the final round of the Mexican regular season will decide who makes up the numbers in the title-deciding Liguilla. FIFA.com brings you a closer look at the highlights of the weekend ahead.
Brazilian state championships: Clássico topping Gaucho bill
With Botafogo having already clinched the Rio de Janeiro state title and surprise packages causing a stir in the Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais championships, it is the Rio Grande do Sul competition which features this weekend’s biggest-name clássico. Gremio and Internacional meet in Porto Alegre’s *Gre-Nal *clash, with the two teams going into the game in quite differing situations.
Gremio, Ronaldinho’s former club, won the first round of the Gaucho championship and could clinch a 36th state title and put an end to Inter’s recent dominance - O Colorado *having won the last two editions of the event and six in total since 2000, taking their tally to 39. And *Inter, coached by Uruguay’s Jorge Fossati, may be forced to field a weakened team after the exertions of Thursday’s Copa Libertadores group win over Deportivo Quito. Fossati may also be keen to rest players ahead of Wednesday’s Libertadores Round of 16 first-leg meeting with Banfield.
High stakes: Over in Minas Gerais, Atletico-MG will be confident of final victory over underdogs Ipatinga, though they must be wary of the side which knocked out favourites Cruzeiro at the semi-final stage. There is another clássico in the Baiano championship, where Bahia meet Vitoria, and in the Cearense competition between Ceara and Fortaleza.
In the spotlight: *There can be no doubting Santos are the team of this year’s Paulista championship but, having strolled past Sao Paulo in the last four, can they turn their fine football into silverware? Awaiting them in the final are surprise-packages Santo Andre, who finished the first phase in second place and must look to find a way to stop an *O Peixe attack which scored 67 goals in 21 games and features Neymar and Robinho.
Argentinian Apertura: No margin for error
The 16th round of the Apertura 2010 could prove decisive for the four leading title candidates. Libertadores 2009 champions Estudiantes have moved level at the top with Independiente after a run of six wins and two draws and, despite next week’s clash with San Luis of Mexico in continental competition, coach Alejandro Sabella should name a full-strength side against struggling River Plate.
High stakes: Level on 30 points with El Pincha, Independiente, inconsistent of late, face a tough away trip to sixth-placed Huracan. Godoy Gruz, beaten last time out to remain on 28 points and drop to fourth place, could regain top spot provisionally with a home win over Chacarita Juniors on Friday. Squeezed in between are Argentinos Juniors (29 points), who are set to take on Gimnasia La Plata on Sunday.
In the spotlight:* *Boca Juniors and interim coach Roberto Pompei, in charge until the rest of the season, will be hoping to lift the gloom caused by recent poor results with a good performance against San Lorenzo. And their chances of doing just that should be boosted by the return from injury of talismanic midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme.
Mexican Bicentenario: *Liguilla *places up for grabs
The 17th round of the 2010 Bicentenario will reveal the names of the final three teams completing the field for the title-deciding end-of-season Liguilla. Monterrey, Guadalajara, Pumas, Santos Laguna and Toluca are already through, with Group 1 duo Atlas and Queretaro, Group 2 trio Morelia, America and Pachuca, and Group 3’s Cruz Azul all determined to join them.
High stakes: Cruz Azul and Guadalajara square off in the match of the round, with the pressure firmly on the former, who need a home win to progress to the Liguilla. They will be also buoyed by victory over Pachuca in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, while the already-qualified Chivas may be distracted by their upcoming Libertadores last-16 first-leg meeting with Velez Sarsfield.
In the spotlight: Also set for fireworks is Monarcas Morelia against Monterrey, with the former needing to beat the leaders of the overall standings to qualify for the Liguilla. Atlas, meanwhile, who no longer have their fate in their own hands, do have a theoretically easier encounter against Chiapas. Finally, America and Pachuca both need to win their games with Santos and Tigres respectively and hope for the best.
Japanese J-League: Pace-setters opening a gap
Though the Japanese top-flight season is still in its early stages, the eighth round of matches could still see Urawa Red Diamonds and Shimizu S-Pulse begin to open up a commanding lead over the chasing pack. Both leaders are expected to beat opponents already in danger of the drop, while at the same time Nagoya Grampus, Kawasaki Frontale and Kashima Antlers – champions for the last three seasons – will be determined not to lose touch with the summit.
High stakes: The meeting of Yokohama F Marinos and Kashima Antlers is certain to be hotly contested. The Yokohama outfit have lost just once at home so far this season, have racked up a couple of heavy wins on their own patch and boast the division’s best defensive record. Kashima, coached by Oswaldo de Oliveira, will be gunning for all three points having failed to win any of their last three league games.
In the spotlight: The city of Osaka is the place to be for goalscorers so far this campaign, with Gamba’s Shoki Hirai having hit five goals in six games so far and Cerezo’s Shinji Kagawa grabbing five in seven. Gamba host FC Tokyo this weekend, with Cerezo also at home to Nagoya Grampus.
This Sunday will witness a Chilean clásico between Universidad de Chile and Colo Colo, with both teams in fine domestic form going into the match. Universidad have won their last five matches and have averaged three goals a game in their last seven outings. Colo Colo, for their part, boast five wins and two draws from their previous seven matches and will be determined to give coach Hugo Tocalli a good send-off in his final match in charge. He will be replaced after the clásico by fellow Argentinian Diego Cagna.
There is also a clash between the leaders in the Korea Republic, where leaders FC Seoul visit Gyeongnam, who are just a point behind in second though have played a game more. Both go into the match on the back of victories, with Seoul particularly confident after their 3-0 defeat of fellow high-flyers Ulsan Hyundai Horangi.
And finally turning to the United States, Los Angeles Galaxy are aiming for a fourth win in a row when they travel to Kansas City Wizards, who will be looking to bounce back from their 1-0 away loss at Seattle Sounders. The Galaxy will be looking for inspiration from on-fire forward Edson Buddle, scorer of seven MLS goals already this campaign.