The midweek bustle of league and cup games merely confirmed an early-season trend that has been evident across Europe, with the continent’s big guns struggling once again to impress. There is no time for the frustrated to dwell on their woes, however, for the fixture calendar will be calling them all back into action this weekend.
In Schalke’s case, that will mean a chance to build on their belated first win of the campaign, while many will be keen to see how Chelsea react to their first setback of 2010/11. Elsewhere, Lyon will be desperate to find their feet against derby rivals and surprise Ligue 1 leaders Saint-Etienne, Barcelona and Real Madrid hope to locate top gear in Spain and Serie A champions Inter Milan could streak even further clear of Roma and AC Milan. FIFA.com looks ahead to the stand-out fixtures in the next few days.
Premier League: First test for Chelsea
Chelsea were beginning to look almost invincible after their perfect start to the season but the Premier League pacesetters suffered a home defeat at the hands of Newcastle United in the League Cup on Wednesday. They must now pick themselves up for their first true test of the championship campaign away against fourth-placed Manchester City, who harbour serious title ambitions of their own. City got the better of Chelsea home and away last term and will be desperate to prevail again in a match that is sure to be closely followed by third-placed Manchester United – who travel to Bolton – and Arsenal, second and at home to West Bromwich Albion.
Liverpool’s problems increased in midweek as they exited the League Cup against fourth-tier Northampton Town at Anfield. Currently languishing16th in the table, Roy Hodgson’s men now need to lift themselves at home against Sunderland, with maximum points required to keep the malaise in check. Meanwhile, the spotlight will also fall on Gerard Houllier as he takes to the Aston Villa dugout for the first time away against Wolverhampton Wanderers, his team having boosted confidence by downing Blackburn Rovers 3-1 on League Cup duty.
The question: Is something destined to give when unbeaten Fulham tackle an Everton side still in search of their first win?
The big game: Manchester City-Chelsea, Saturday 12.45, City of Manchester Stadium
The quote: "It’s a very difficult period. Every match is very important from now on. We’re going to be in for a tough test against Sunderland and perhaps in the games after that we’ll start racking up some points,” Milan Jovanovic, Liverpool forward.
Bundesliga: Champions take on leaders
While fixtures between Bayern Munich and modest outfit Mainz may usually appear close to a formality, Saturday’s outing will be nothing short of a trip into the unknown. Champions Bayern are no higher than eighth in the standings and it is visitors Mainz who lead the way at the summit, having strung together an impeccable five wins from five matches so far. Adding to the sense of unfamiliarity, Bayern’s historic rivals Borussia Dortmund will be hoping Louis van Gaal’s troops come out on top, a result that would allow the second-placed side to move into pole position assuming they can prevail at promoted St. Pauli.
At the opposite end of the table, Schalke could have finally turned a corner after clinching their first victory of the season at Freiburg on Wednesday, and they will be keen to climb off the bottom at home against a Borussia Monchengladbach team sliding down the standings. Also experiencing worrying times are Werder Bremen, 14th after suffering a heavy 4-1 loss at Hannover, but they can at least count upon fit-again duo Per Mertesacker and Claudio Pizarro for their home meeting with sixth-placed Hamburg.
The question: Will Mainz remain the only unbeaten top-flight team after their away assignment at Bayern?
The big game: Bayern Munich-Mainz, Saturday 15.30, Allianz-Arena
The quote: “Despite all the respect I have for Hannover, we really shouldn’t have lost to them, especially not in that way. We mustn’t panic, nor can we keep our arms folded, but we currently have six points fewer than we’d planned on,” Klaus Allofs, Werder Bremen sporting director.
Serie A: Inter already untouchable?
The season may still be new, but there is a strong hint of déjà vu about events in Italy. Inter Milan already appear primed for another year of dominance atop the Serie A table after dispatching Bari 4-0 in midweek, and the champions are now targeting a further three points at the home of 2009/10 runners-up Roma. What could have been a high-stakes meeting between title rivals instead resembles a mismatch, with the in-form Nerazzurri and their fearsome strike force of Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito threatening to add to the misery of the 19th-placed capital club. Indeed, Roma’s central defenders have been finding life difficult enough as it is, with Nicolas Burdisso and Philippe Mexes seeing red in successive games.
Backed as potential championship candidates before the season began, eighth-placed AC Milan have not tasted victory since the opening day, but they will be bent on triumphing against a Genoa team that has also lost momentum. As for Juventus, beaten again in Thursday’s 3-1 home defeat by Palermo, the 15th-place stragglers will be desperate to bounce back when Cagliari come calling. Lastly, surprise high-flyers Chievo and Brescia – second and third respectively – intend to continue their superb starts against Lazio and Bari.
The question: Will Udinese be able to collect their first points of the campaign away against Sampdoria?
The big game: Roma-Inter Milan, Saturday 20.45, Stadio Olimpico
The quote: "We need to be strong and patient. It’s not easy; we need to put ourselves on the right path and we’ll do that with Francesco Guidolin,” Udinese sporting director Andrea Carnevale on coach Francesco Guidolin.
La Liga: Messi missing for Barcelona
Barely a month into the new Spanish season and the usual suspects have already positioned themselves at the head of the class. Real Madrid took over in pole position in midweek and they plan to still be there following their journey to take on Levante. Second-placed Valencia are away against Sporting Gijon and Atletico Madrid, in sixth, are gearing up to welcome Real Zaragoza. One place higher than Los Colchoneros, Sevilla ought to be wary about their fixture at promoted Hercules, who claimed a sensational recent victory against Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
As for the Catalan giants, despite toiling against a few lesser lights this term they have handled their supposedly tougher opponents with panache, swotting aside Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup, Panathinaikos in the UEFA Champions League and Atletico in La Liga. Next up is a tricky outing at seventh-placed Athletic Bilbao and not only will Barça go into that game without the injured Lionel Messi, they will also need to silence the home side’s striker Fernando Llorente, who looks a whole different prospect since helping Spain win the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
The question: Real Madrid have won all three of their previous engagements at Levante but will they be able to maintain their perfect record?
The big game: Athletic Bilbao-Barcelona, Saturday 22.00, San Mames
The quote: "We had a difficult set of fixtures to begin with and yet we’re still high up the table. Our next match is at home against Zaragoza and we have to continue in the same fashion. The fixture calendar is tough for us, but we believe in our chances,” Diego Godin, Atletico Madrid defender.
Ligue 1: Roles reversed in Rhone derby
Who would have thought it? After spending much of the recent past battling to stave off relegation, Saint-Etienne will go into the 100th Rhone derby on top of the pile and with the division’s keenest marksman in their ranks. The mission for six-goal Dimitri Payet will be to compound the troubles of a Lyon team floundering in 17th spot, while under-pressure OL coach Claude Puel will be praying for some brighter performances from the bigger names in his squad. In short, nothing less than victory will suffice for Lyon – and that result would also play into the hands of second-placed Toulouse and third-placed Rennes, who host Lille and travel to Nice respectively.
As for Marseille, the title-holders lie in eighth spot ahead of their home meeting with fifth-placed Sochaux, who delivered a sparkling 4-0 success against Nice in their previous outing. Lastly, Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux will want to show continued signs of improvement on their respective trips to Lens and Caen.
The question: Third last season, Auxerre now find themselves third from bottom without a win under their belts. Can the Burgundy outfit break their duck against Nancy?
The big game: Lyon-Saint-Etienne, Saturday 21.00, Stade de Gerland
The quote: "I spent six very good months there. I’m happy for them that they’ve made a good start. As for us, we’re like a wounded animal. Victory is imperative,” Pape Diakhate, Lyon defender and former Saint-Etienne player.
With a week to go before their much-anticipated meeting in Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev will each get to warm up with a testing challenge. Two points ahead at the summit, Shakhtar travel to face fifth-placed Metalist Kharkiv, while closest pursuers Dynamo must negotiate a capital derby date with Arsenal Kiev.
The weekend’s action ought to be engaging in Slovenia too, with unbeaten champions Zilina top on goal difference but hoping to put fresh air between themselves and Senica. After all, while Zilina can look forward to welcoming mid-table Dunajska Streda, Senica must make the trip to third-placed Ruzomberok, who lie a mere two points further back.