Atletico Madrid's top-of-the-table clash this weekend with FC Barcelona headlines the weekend's biggest domestic fixtures from Europe's major leagues.
The Atleti have no doubt been one of the surprise performers this year. They have seriously challenged the hegemons of Spain in both Barca and Real Madrid, and could move to the top of the table this weekend if they defeat the defending champions.
Elsewhere in Europe, Manchester United face Swansea City once more in a must-win match for the Red Devils, while Manchester City, Napoli and Real Sociedad all face difficult road games that they won't want to drop any points in.
Read on for all the need-to-know information and predictions about the biggest domestic matches in Europe's five major leagues this weekend.
Saturday, 11 January, 2014
Hull vs. Chelsea—12:45 p.m BST
Manchester United vs. Swansea City—5:30 p.m. BST
Atletico Madrid vs. FC Barcelona—7 p.m. BST
Sunday, 12 January, 2014
Hellas Verona vs. SSC Napoli—2 p.m. BST
Newcastle United vs. Manchester City — 2:05 p.m. BST
Espanyol vs. Real Madrid —6 p.m. BST
Monday, 13 January, 2014
Villarreal vs. Real Sociedad—9 p.m. BST
At home, Hull have been close to unstoppable in the Premier League, which is strange to say given that they're a whopping 22 points off first-placed Arsenal.
The Premier League new boys have suffered just two home defeats all season at the KC Stadium (and almost managed to get a result in their 3-2 defeat there against Manchester United) and will certainly draw confidence from that as they welcome Chelsea to town this weekend.
The Blues have been a little inconsistent this year, and this is the type of game that they could well slip up in if the home team can apply enough pressure and stop the Londoners' quick counterattacks.
That, it must be said, is much easier said than done.
Chelsea have been prolific on the break this year and have scored in all bar one of their past 10 league fixtures. Jose Mourinho's men have taken points of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester United and Southampton this season, and while the trip to Hull might be daunting given the home team's impressive run of form, Chelsea's away successes this season prove that they'll most likely be too good here as well.
John Obi Mikel was quoted via the Hull Daily Mail this week speaking about the winning mentality that Mourinho has instilled at the club since his arrival, and with that in mind, it's hard to see them dropping points here given how close the Premier League title race has become this season.
If you don't play for Chelsea, you don't know what these trophies mean to this club. It's not a team where if you come second, third or fourth, it doesn't matter. No. Every year you have to win something and this is the pressure... He [Mourinho] wants us to play in a certain way and give 110 percent. If you don't, you're out.
Prediction: Hull 0-2 Chelsea
Manchester United must win this weekend.
It's gone past the point of being a tough run for the Red Devils; they simply must get all three points this weekend against Swansea City (who knocked them out of the FA Cup at the same venue during the week) to calm the storm that's gathering around David Moyes' managerial campaign.
Injuries certainly haven't helped the defending champions this season, and they could again be without both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in this one.
However, reports this week via Daily Mirror indicated that the duo may well line up together in this one, which would certainly be a huge boost indeed.
Swansea might have played out of their skin during the week to beat United, but it's hard to see that happening again here. United will have certainly received a spray from their boss over the past week, and that should fire them back into the winners circle this weekend, particularly if both their England and Dutch international forwards make a re-appearance to the first team.
United are still a team in crisis, and this win doesn't alleviate any of the pressure on Moyes at all. But it's still three points that could well go a long way this season.
Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 Swansea City
Without doubt the pick of the fixtures this week.
Atletico Madrid have been simply brilliant at home this year (yet to drop a single point in La Liga) and come up against a Barcelona team that has showed their expected brilliance this season but also have shown susceptibility away from the Nou Camp.
Lionel Messi is back for the visitors—which give them a psychological boost as much as anything—and they'll certainly be a tough side to break down as a result.
The biggest concern for La Blaugrana is their defense, which has conceded just six goals away from home but hasn't posted a clean sheet on the road since October against Celta Vigo.
Atletico's last five home wins have come at a combined score of 20-3.
What that all means for this one is tough to read. Barcelona have probably been down a little this season on their exceptional form of the past two or three years, and Atletico have certainly been head and shoulders above expectations in the back half of 2013, but it's hard to completely write off the visitors from making this an incredibly close fixture on the night.
As such, I'm leaning with a draw here.
Prediction: Atletico Madrid 1-1 FC Barcelona
With a home record that reads 8-0-1 so far this season, Hellas Verona could potentially head into this weekend's fixture against SSC Napoli as the favourites. Which, given that Napoli have won just three of their last seven fixtures, is perhaps understandable.
But that's not to suggest that the visitors won't be a real chance here.
Napoli have been more susceptible defensively away from home than in Naples (positing just one clean sheet as opposed to in half of their home games), but they've still only conceded 12 goals in eight matches on the road. Hellas Verona's biggest strength has been their defense as well (averaging less than a goal against per game at home), and that should lead to this one being a very close, tight affair.
So close, in fact, there might be no winner after 90 minutes.
But let's go out on a limb here and pick a close win for the visitors, with Gonzalo Higuain ending any doubts about his playing future with the game-winner.
Prediction: Hellas Verona 0-1 SSC Napoli
Stopping Manchester City hasn't exactly been an easy thing in the Premier League this season, but there's still some question marks surrounding their away form.
The Citizens have won just four road games all season and have scored half the total goals that they have at the Etihad while conceding nearly three times as many in defense. That's not just a coincidence; Manuel Pellegrini's side simply haven't been anywhere near as prolific away from home, and with a difficult trip up north this weekend, that fact might well make another appearance here.
Except that this is bad timing for an upset.
Newcastle United are usually very tough at home given the distance that most Premier League clubs have to travel, but it's not as far from Manchester, and the Magpies are in a slight bit of a rut, having won just three of their last seven league fixtures.
The Toon have scored just 17 goals at home this season too, and while that might be enough to beat some teams, it won't be enough to beat an in-form City side.
The 2012 champions have not lost since November in the Premier League and have scored 29 goals in their last nine games.
Look for them to continue their attacking dominance this weekend.
Prediction: Newcastle United 1-3 Manchester City
While the top two teams in La Liga battle it out this weekend in Madrid, Los Blancos will make the tough journey to Espanyol in a fixture that could turn out to be huge for Carlo Ancelotti's men. They'll know that both Atletico and Barcelona can't win this weekend and that this is a huge chance to eliminate some of the distance between the two clubs, but at the same time, this isn't a fixture that's all that straightforward.
Espanyol have been very tight at the back (with a third of their home matches ending in clean sheets), and that should trouble even Madrid's high-flying attack.
The hosts have only won one of their last five home games, though, while Los Blancos have only dropped two points since their El Clasico defeat in October.
Cristiano Ronaldo is firing, Gareth Bale is continuing to find his place, and Espanyol just haven't enough in attack to suggest that they're going to be able to match the visitors' attack. The hosts will handle themselves defensively, but to beat Real Madrid you're going to need goals, and even against a somewhat shaky Madrid defense, it's hard to see them correcting that here.
Espanyol have only scored 22 goals in 18 games, which simply isn't enough.
Prediction: Espanyol 0-3 Real Madrid
Torino vs. Fiorentina (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. BST)
Torino have lost just once at home this season (1-0 to Juventus in September) and taken points off several big-name teams in front of their home fans. Roma, Hellas Verona and Inter Milan all dropped points at Torino, which certainly isn't what Fiorentina fans will want to hear, especially given that the visitors have won just one of their past three road games. Fiorentina, though, have won their last three Serie A games by a combined score of 5-0, and their defensive solidity here should do enough to earn them a huge point.
Prediction: Torino 0-0 Fiorentina
Aston Villa vs. Arsenal (Monday, 8 p.m. BST)
Aston Villa might have beaten Arsenal earlier in the season at the Emirates Stadium, but that was before Mesut Ozil arrived and Aaron Ramsey started to break out, and you could argue that the loss only happened in the end after a Laurent Koscielny brain-snap. The North Londoners still have some injury problems at the moment like they did earlier in the season, but they are a much stronger team now and should extend their position on top of the table against a Villa team that's won just twice away from home since September.
Prediction: Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal
Villarreal vs. Real Sociedad (Monday, 9 p.m. BST)
Villarreal might have delivered a disappointing performance in the Copa del Rey during the week, but Marcelino Garcia Toral's side are in great touch at the moment in terms of the league. Both of their home defeats this season have been relatively close-fought, and while Real Sociedad's quick counter-attacking game suits them better to playing on the road than at home, the hosts should be too strong here both in attack and defense (which has conceded just 11 goals all season).
Prediction: Villarreal 1-0 Real Sociedad
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