Chelsea's Premier League encounter against Manchester United headlines an intriguing slate of football this weekend, with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and a new-look Milan also facing tough challenges in their respective leagues as well.
Throw in the classic duel between Ajax and PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie, and it's shaping up as a very good weekend indeed!
Read on for a full breakdown of the biggest matches, as well as predictions for who will emerge triumphant in the end.
Friday, 17 January, 2014
7:30 p.m. GMT: Saint-Etienne vs. Lille OSC
Sunday, 19 January, 2014
3:30 p.m. GMT: Ajax vs. PSV Eindhoven
4:00 p.m. GMT: Chelsea vs. Manchester United
7:45 p.m. GMT: AC Milan vs. Hellas Verona
8:00 p.m. GMT: Paris Saint-Germain vs. Nantes
The race to keep up with tearaway leaders PSG in Ligue 1 is a hotly contested one, and one that Saint-Etienne know they are slowly starting to slip away in. Having been impressive all season without being spectacular, the fourth-placed club will host Lille OSC this week (who are currently in third place) knowing that failure to snatch all three points could very much leave them on the outside.
Three points for Lille, on the other hand, would certainly keep them in the race to catch PSG, and potentially see them leap AS Monaco into second place.
Having been so tight at the back all season, Lille have just started to wander heading into the new year, with just two wins from their last five games. They've played some very tough matches indeed in that time, but they have only scored three goals in their last four away games in Ligue 1. As a result there's certainly some valid concerns about whether the visitors will be able to deliver again away from home.
Especially against a Saint-Etienne team that's won their last three home games without conceding a goal, that away form is enough to worry me here for Lille.
Their defence has been superb all season, but I simply can't see them scoring goals away from home to Saint-Etienne, who have conceded goals in just one of their last seven league games. Expect it to be close and tight at the back, with one goal the difference between these two in the end.
Prediction: Saint-Etienne 1-0 Lille OSC
Having not played for several weeks now, the Eredivisie will finally return this weekend and it immediately throws up an iconic contest known around European club football.
The might of Ajax against the power of PSV Eindhoven.
Much has changed for the visitors in the last 12 months (losing the likes of Kevin Strootman really hurt their attacking potency) and they now sit in seventh place in the Eredivisie following a particularly bad two-month spell, where they only managed two wins between late August and early December. They did manage to turn that around with a promising 5-1 win away to FC Utrecht before the break, however, and that will certainly give them plenty of confidence heading into this rivalry game.
Form is indeed often secondary when it comes to these games, and the break certainly eradicates part of that form line as well for both teams, so it's hard to read too much into the six-game winning streak that Ajax are currently on as they now occupy top spot in the domestic competition.
But even then, casting aside form and rivalries, it's hard to see PSV having the strength to beat Ajax here.
The hosts have only lost once at home all season, and that came in the final moments against Vitesse Arnhem back in early November. PSV, on the other hand, have managed just one away win since the opening week of the season, and will likely be dwarfed in the end by their superior rivals.
Look for Ajax to dominate, with a late goal for PSV giving a bit more credibility to the scoreboard.
Prediction: Ajax 4-2 PSV Eindhoven
If you look at the glass half-full, Manchester United have lost just one Premier League game since December 8 and have conceded only four goals in that time.
If you look at it half-empty, United have posted embarrassing defeats in the Capital One Cup, FA Cup and Premier League all inside the past month, and only just managed to get past the Swans last weekend thanks to a blistering five-minute spell following the half-time break.
Where the Red Devils really are is probably somewhere in the middle of those two perspectives, but it's likely that perspective will all be irrelevant this weekend.
With both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie out, according to ESPN, United's attack will seriously struggle against a Blues' defense that's gaining great success out of John Terry and Gary Cahill, and it never takes long for Jose Mourinho's sides to strike when they spot a weakness.
With their talismanic strikers out, United are vulnerable, and Chelsea's in-form attacking weapons should fire in front of their home fans at Stamford Bridge. The Blues have not lost in their last six games and, incredibly, have conceded just twice since 7 December as well.
Mourinho's side are starting to increase speed in their quest towards the Premier League title, as NBC's lead commentator Arlo White noted during Bleacher Report's Google+ Hangout, and it's hard to see them not extending their winning ways here.
The Red Devils are probably a better team then what the common perception is at the moment, but with both Rooney and RVP out, they don't stand a chance here.
Prediction: Chelsea 2-0 Manchester United
Having confirmed the appointment of Clarence Seedorf on a two-and-a-half-year contract, per The Telegraph, a new dawn is approaching Milan right now.
January recruit Keisuke Honda is just as critical for the Italian heavyweights.
Having struggled for most of the season to date, Milan know that their chances of winning the Serie A title are all but gone. Their chances of playing Champions League football next season are also incredibly slim as they currently sit 20 points off third-placed SSC Napoli, but there's still plenty to gain over the back half of the season for the Rossoneri under their new manager.
Expect them to come out firing this weekend, as is so often the case when a new manager comes in.
In truth, Milan haven't been all that bad this season, with a number of incredibly close losses to their name. Milan have only lost by more than one goal all season (a 2-0 defeat to Fiorentina), and they haven't lost at home since that result in question in early December.
Hellas Verona have been somewhat of a surprise package in Serie A this year, but that's been largely down to their home form, where they've won eight of 10 matches. It's a different story away from home, though, where they haven't beaten a team not inside the bottom six.
Their four away matches to the top four teams in the league saw them concede a staggering 13 goals in total, which will certainly give Milan plenty of confidence here that they can get their "new dawn" off to a promising start.
With the "new manager curse" on their side, I think they'll do just that.
Prediction: AC Milan 2-1 Hellas Verona
Having lost just once all season and currently sitting five points clear of second-placed Monaco, PSG know deep down inside that the Ligue 1 title is theirs to lose this year. They've been easily the best team in France (although maybe not in the knockout competitions), and the capital club will be expected to keep their undefeated season at the Parc des Princes going this weekend against Nantes.
It's not a bad expectation to have, really, given that PSG have scored in every home game this year and have kept clean sheets in 60 percent of said matches.
They also beat Nantes (away from home) 2-1 earlier in the season.
The visitors travel to the capital without the greatest away form (winning just two of their last five) but they did post impressive wins against Bordeaux and Marseille in that time, where they also managed to keep clean sheets.
They've only scored 11 goals away from home all season, but their defence in such matches has been superb—conceding just 10 goals in total—and with 40 percent of their away matches ending with clean sheets also, they're certainly not to be underestimated here.
Back from the break, it's hard to back against PSG here, and I do think they'll get up in the end. But it might not be the walkover that many are expecting.
Prediction: Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 Nantes
Author's Note: After writing for Bleacher Report for over three years now, this will be my final article for the company for an extended period of time as I move on to another role. I just wanted to extend my sincerest thanks to all that have read, praised, criticised, assisted with and enjoyed my work over the time that I've been here, and I hope that you continue to enjoy the wonderful content that B/R produces.
Keep in touch by hitting me up on Twitter: Follow @dantalintyre