As many of the world’s major leagues near the end of the season, the pressure is sharper than ever. Points are at a premium, and clubs are acutely aware of the price of failure and the glory associated with success.
It is a crucial time for the teams at the top of the table as they attempt to maintain the dominance that has seen them prosper over their peers. But it may be even more important to those near the relegation zone who are thrashing desperately against injury and ill fortune to secure the results needed to survive.
The weekend certainly delivered as far as drama and suspense go, with various sides giving themselves reason for unlikely optimism, others dropping deeper into the mire and a number being propelled toward the glory that has long awaited them.
Read on to discover the big winners and losers of the weekend’s action…
The momentum has been growing for Paul Lambert and his band of young Villans over the last few weeks. Despite a loss at home to Liverpool last Sunday, Villa have kept themselves afloat with March’s triumphs over fellow relegation candidates Reading and QPR.
Their fortune looks like continuing into April, as an emphatic victory over Stoke City has put daylight between them and the dreaded relegation zone.
Not only has the 3-1 victory placed Villa in a great position to avoid the drop, it must have also injected the young side with the belief and the conviction that they belong at this level. There are few sensations more uplifting than a late winner to secure three points, and Matthew Lowton’s stunning strike will have been a huge fillip for Lambert’s boys.
Christian Benteke’s 90th-minute goal was merely the icing on the cake.
For all the positivity that surrounds Aston Villa—their young squad, their attacking prowess and their weekend victory—it is a very different story in The Potteries, where Stoke City are in danger of sinking without a trace.
Doubtless, Stoke fans are unlikely to be staring relegation directly in the eyes just yet. Their side remain in 15th place, and the perception is that there are enough weaker teams below them to cushion any Championship-directed slide.
However, the limp home performance against Villa was horrifically unconvincing, and the Midlanders, as well as Newcastle United, are two teams below Stoke that look to have the wherewithal to overtake them.
Consider also a potential Sunderland rejuvenation under new boss Paolo Di Canio and a late (traditional) surge from Wigan, and the three points that separate the Potters from the abyss may be whittled away before Tony Pulis’s wearied eyes.
Not only was this a victory, it was a victory of immense attacking class. Cesc Fabregas, operating in the false nine role, bagged himself a convincing hat-trick, while Alexis Sanchez also contributed with a sterling brace. The former was particularly effective in becoming the first Spaniard to net a hat-trick for Barcelona in over a decade.
The impressive victory was also evidence of the depth in class of Tito Vilanova’s squad. Sanchez and Fabregas have not been regulars since arriving in Catalonia, yet over the weekend they stepped up to demonstrate their enduring quality and also to signal the potential roles they could play in Barca’s assault on the Champions League trophy.
Particularly, in the well-documented absence of Leo Messi, their performances will have been encouraging for the Barcelona hierarchy.
The Catalan side have led La Liga’s standings for every week since the season’s inception. Their inevitable triumph this season has rarely been doubted. Their latest victory places them 13 points ahead of archrivals Real Madrid with only eight games left to play.
That 22nd La Liga title is little more than a formality.
While in the eyes of many, Mallorca were merely "this week’s fall guys" for Barcelona’s inexorable quest toward La Liga gold, the islanders are in a particularly sticky patch at the moment. Conceding five at the Camp Nou has not done their predicament any good.
The visitors were lacklustre, and while they were up against top-quality opposition, the ease with which Andres Iniesta was able to split the defence and carve gaping holes in the midfield should be of great concern to Gregorio Manzano and his staff.
Despite an encouraging start to the season, Mallorca have now occupied one of the relegation spots for over 10 weeks.
All is not lost. With four points separating the bottom five teams, there is still hope for a revival, but Manzano will need to find a way to move on from such a potentially crushing defeat.
Few "winners" have won quite as convincingly as Bayern Munich over the last few weeks and months. Victory away to Frankfurt secured their latest Bundesliga title, and this, in many ways, trumps the other wins.
Consider the facts.
Their latest triumph came in record time; never has a side won the top flight with six games to go, making this the quickest Bundesliga victory in history. Bayern’s performance en route to victory has been overwhelmingly convincing; they have conceded only 13 goals and have only lost one game all year.
They have won every league contest since Christmas. Despite the impressive setups of the likes of Borussia Dortmund and the rejuvenated Monchengladbach, Bayern have completely eviscerated the field of competition.
With Munich unbeaten away from home this year, I would place them as overwhelming favourites to resist Juventus in the Champions League and advance to the semifinals.
Pep Guardiola must be licking his lips at the prospect of taking the helm with the Bavarian giants. Perhaps perfection awaits.
Last summer, both of the Milan sides appeared to be arriving at a crossroads, but while AC Milan have reinvented themselves this season and placed their faith in bright, young prospects with a point to prove, their city rivals Inter have struggled to emerge into a new era.
Both sides are well off the pace in the league, with 13 points separating AC Milan from leaders Juventus. But while AC Milan’s performances have offered hope for a future, their approach, compared to that of Inter Milan, have aggravated the chasm between the sides.
Inter’s latest defeat truly demonstrated the issues that the side and the squad have. Their 4-3 loss to Atalanta—having led 3-1 at one point—drew an angry response from the side’s traditionally mild-mannered stalwart, Javier Zanetti.
The Argentine took time to criticise the referee, but his frustration was surely a result of the inadequacies of a squad that have now lost three of their last four league games.
The summer can’t come soon enough for the Nerazzurri, and Andrea Stramaccioni looks to have a major overhaul ahead of him.