Weekend in European football: Leaders, contenders back in action

Weekend in European football: Leaders, contenders back in action
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European football swings back into action this weekend with a heated title race ahead of the first half break.

Chelsea travels to Manchester City on Saturday knowing victory is essential if it is going to keep pace with the relentless Premier League leaders this season. City’s 11th consecutive league win – a last-gasp 2-1 success at Arsenal on New Year’s Day – took the champion 10 points clear of second-placed Chelsea as Pep Guardiola’s side look on course to retain the title with another sky-high points total. The run is the fifth time City has managed 11 or more consecutive victories in the competition, though all is not lost for Chelsea ahead of its trip to the Etihad Stadium as three of the previous four such runs ended in a home match.

Thomas Tuchel’s European champion has struggled to match its early season form of late, having picked up one win and four draws from its last five league games. The German is fully aware of just how difficult it will be to overhaul City’s advantage and stop the league leader from making it four Premier League titles in five seasons.

“They are relentless,” Tuchel told reporters after his side’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool in Chelsea’s last league match. “They know what it takes to produce these high-point seasons over and over again. We are the next in that race but it’s a big gap. Maybe we need longer than one season to catch Man City.”

Two sides whose fortunes have improved in recent months meet on Sunday when Arsenal in fifth travels to Tottenham Hotspur, who is looking to win three straight home league games against its north London rival for the first time since August 1961.

Sixth-placed Spurs are now two points behind Arsenal with two games in hand having been unbeaten in their eight league games under new boss Antonio Conte, the best unbeaten start for a Tottenham manager in the club’s league history. However, below-par performances in both legs of their League Cup semifinal defeat by Chelsea in the past two weeks told Conte all he needed to know about how much work there is to do.

“There’s an important gap, an important difference, there’s a big job to do to retrieve the situation,” Conte said of the chasm in quality between Spurs and Chelsea after last week’s first leg defeat at Stamford Bridge. “If we think we are close (to Chelsea) we are not in the right way.”

Arsenal is in a similar situation to the Spurs given that its recent improvement under Mikel Arteta has stuttered with a home defeat by Manchester City before being knocked out of the FA Cup by second-tier Nottingham Forest in last weekend’s third round.

Seventh-placed Manchester United travels to Aston Villa on Saturday as it looks to turn its faltering season around. Results have improved under interim coach Ralf Rangnick, but performances remain inconsistent. United was fortunate to get past Villa in the FA Cup on Monday, with Cristiano Ronaldo issuing a rallying cry to his underperforming team this week.

“We know we aren’t playing the best football but we have many games to improve,” he told Sky Sports. “I don’t want to be here to be in sixth place or seventh place or fifth place. I’m here to try to win.” Following a six-game winning run in November and December, third-placed Liverpool – who trails City by 11 points but has a game in hand – is without a win in its last three league matches ahead of Brentford’s visit on Sunday.

Atalanta versus Inter

Two of Serie A’s great entertainers go head to head on Sunday as free-scoring Atalanta looks to derail league leader Inter Milan, who is threatening to pull clear of the chasing pack. Despite working to a vastly inferior budget than its rival, Atalanta continues to punch above its weight in Serie A, with the Bergamo side again sitting in the top four, as it aims to qualify for the Champions League for the fourth season in a row. Last season, Atalanta was Serie A’s top scorer and after a slow start, only champions Inter and AC Milan have found the net more often this term with Gian Piero Gasperini’s team putting six past Udinese last weekend.

Inter’s lethal attack has helped it go on a run of eight successive league wins, moving Simone Inzaghi’s side back to the top of the standings, one point clear of Milan having played one game fewer. Inzaghi has plenty of selection dilemmas ahead of Sunday’s clash in Bergamo, after fringe forward Alexis Sanchez came off the bench to score the winner in Wednesday’s Italian Super Cup success over Juventus.

“Everyone wants to play,” Inzaghi told reporters after the match. “Roberto Gagliardini was one of the best against Lazio at the weekend, but he didn’t get a minute today, so I have to make choices for Atalanta. Lautaro Martinez and Edin Dzeko had worked so hard, (Arturo) Vidal made an impact and (Federico) Dimarco was crucial for the goal. We want to win every match, no matter what it takes.”

Juventus will want to get over its Super Cup disappointment quickly when it hosts Udinese on Saturday, but it will have to manage without Italy forward Federico Chiesa after he damaged his cruciate ligament at AS Roma last weekend. The performance in the thrilling 4-3 success over Jose Mourinho’s Roma last Sunday, when the team looked dead and buried at 3-1 down with 20 minutes to go, will give Juve fans hope their side possesses the fight to turn its season around. Serie A’s most successful team goes into the weekend fifth in the standings, 11 points behind leader Inter.

After suffering from inconsistency before the winter break, second-placed AC Milan has returned to action in 2022 with two wins from two to keep on Inter’s tail ahead of its clash with Spezia on Monday. Veteran Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic was among the goals in last weekend’s 3-0 win at Venezia.

Napoli, who led the way for much of the campaign following its long unbeaten start to the season, sits third after losing four of its last seven before the winter break. It will look to make it back-to-back Serie A wins when it travels to Bologna on Monday.

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