The weekend’s top games

A top-of-the-table clash in Portugal takes centre stage this weekend alongside tough tests for Premier League leaders Manchester United FC and Liga pacesetters FC Barcelona.

robin van persie

France: Stade Rennais FC v FC Girondins de Bordeaux (Saturday 20.00)
UEFA Europa League contenders Bordeaux could leapfrog Rennes into fourth place with victory. However, Francis Gillot’s side’s seven-game unbeaten run in all competitions is not as impressive as it sounds – they have drawn their last five Ligue 1 fixtures, scoring just once in the last four.

“If we keep playing like we have recently, we won’t win many games, but we have some important ones ahead in January,” said Gillot, who has Julien Faubert back training at the south-west club following his departure from Turkish team Elazığspor. Rennes too have recovered a notable old boy, with defender John Mensah, released by Olympique Lyonnais, signing a six-month contract. They are looking to bounce back after last weekend’s Coupe de France loss to Ligue 2 side RC Lens.


England: Manchester United FC v Liverpool FC (Sunday 14.30)
Brendan Rodgers becomes the eighth Liverpool manager to take a team to Old Trafford during Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarkable Old Trafford reign. Though United have a seven-point cushion atop the Premier League, and are 21 points clear of eighth-placed Liverpool, Sir Alex remains wary of the club’s great rivals.

“There will always be a certain build-up to a Manchester United-Liverpool game simply because of the history between the two clubs, the two most successful in the country,” he said. “It brings its own agenda in terms of profile and pre-match discussion.” The match pits together the division’s two most prolific scorers, United’s Robin van Persie (16) and Liverpool’s Luis Suárez (15).

Portugal: SL Benfica v FC Porto (Sunday 21.15)
With two rounds to go until the midway stage of the 2012/13 Portuguese Liga season, leaders Benfica host second-place Porto in the first ‘Clássico’ of the campaign. Though the Lisbon outfit are three points ahead of their rivals, Porto have a game in hand. “The advantage we have is not important,” said Eagles coach Jorge Jesus. “They have played a game less so it is as though we have the same points.”

Porto coach Vítor Pereira added: “We are ready for the fight and at the end we will see who wins the league.” In their last 11 trips to the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Porto have lost only twice, drawing three times and winning on six occasions.


Greece: PAOK FC v Atromitos FC (Sunday 18.30)
While Olympiacos FC have a healthy eight-point lead at the Greek Super League summit, there is an intriguing tussle behind them. PAOK are in pole position, six points above Asteras Tripolis FC and Atromitos, who travel to Salonika on Sunday. PAOK, unbeaten at home this term, are coached by Giorgos Donis, who left the Atromitos helm just last summer.

“We need to improve our game and our position in the league,” said Donis. “That will be achieved through victories against our direct rivals, Atromitos and Asteras Tripolis. Our goal is to be as strong as possible when the play-offs start.” In the Atromitos dugout will be Nikos Anastopoulos, who replaced Dušan Bajević last month.

Italy: UC Sampdoria v AC Milan (Sunday 20.45)
After causing the shock of the season last weekend by winning 2-1 at Juventus despite going a goal and a man down, Sampdoria are seeking another scalp. However, Massimiliano Allegri’s Milan need to return to winning ways following their Coppa Italia quarter-final loss at Juve on Wednesday. “We are sorry for the defeat; we must start up again and win against Sampdoria,” said the Rossoneri’s top scorer Stephan El Shaarawy.

Milan last triumphed at Samp in 2007, yet Allegri can draw optimism from the recent performances of youngsters El Shaarawy, Bojan Krkić, M’Baye Niang and Mattia De Sciglio. “I think my team are continuing to grow and we will prove it,” said Allegri, who is without the suspended Giampaolo Pazzini up front.

Spain: Málaga CF v FC Barcelona (Sunday 21.00)
Manuel Pellegrini’s fourth-placed Málaga side have not beaten Liga leaders Barcelona – whom they face three times in the next fortnight, with a two-legged Copa del Rey quarter-final looming – since December 2003. Should they have designs on ending that wait this weekend then Javier Saviola says the Andalusians will have to “play the perfect game”.

Saviola, who scored 49 goals in 123 top-flight appearances for Barça, explained that Sunday represents a “special occasion” for him. “Things have gone well for us against the big teams [this season] but it will be tricky on Sunday as there is absolutely no margin for error when you play Barcelona,” added the 31-year-old.

All times CET.



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