LONDON: What to watch in the leading soccer leagues in Europe this weekend:
A seventh team could be joining the race for Champions League qualification. Everton is making a late run to challenge the current top six, with seven wins from 10 games putting the team at the top of the Premier League’s table since the start of the year. A derby tomorrow against neighbor Liverpool, which is one of the sides fighting to clinch a place in Europe’s top competition. Everton would move within three points of fourth-place Liverpool with a win at Anfield.
But the international break hasn’t been kind to Everton manager Ronald Koeman. The defense will be stretched after attacking right back Seamus Coleman broke a leg on Ireland duty and center back Ramiro Funes Mori injured a knee while playing for Argentina. Arsenal and Manchester City, two other members of the top six, meet at Emirates Stadium on Sunday while Chelsea takes a 10-point lead into a match against Crystal Palace.
Monaco has a chance to break Paris Saint-Germain’s hegemony by taking the League Cup off the defending champions. One of the most exciting teams in Europe this season, Monaco is chasing a first major title since it won the League Cup in 2003. The team has scored 16 goals in its past five games. But Monaco’s ambitions could be hampered by the absence of key players in Saturday’s final in Lyon. Midfielder Fabinho is suspended while Djibril Sidibe (rib injury) and Radamel Falcao (hip injury) are doubtful for the final. Monaco, the last French team standing in the Champions League, remains in contention for a rare quadruple. The club has a three-point lead over PSG in the league and will play Lille in the French Cup quarterfinals next month.
In a game that could go a long way to determining the destination of the title, league leader Benfica hosts FC Porto with one point separating them. Porto has closed a five-point gap to join Benfica as the front-runners, with Sporting Lisbon nine points behind in third. Benfica is seeking an unprecedented fourth straight league title. At home, Benfica is unbeaten in the league this season and hasn’t failed to score since October 2015.
A spat between Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos has added fuel to a heated title race. Madrid holds a two-point lead and hosts Alaves on Sunday, while Barcelona visits struggling Granada. Alaves, which will play Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final in May, is 10th with only one loss in its last six matches. Granada has lost four of its last five matches and is in the relegation zone. Third-place Sevilla, six points off the lead, will try to move closer to the top when it hosts relegation-wary Sporting Gijon on Sunday. Fourth-place Atletico Madrid plays at Malaga on Saturday.
Gonzalo Higuain will return to Napoli for the first time since his move to Juventus. The love Napoli fans had for Higuain swiftly turned to hatred following his transfer for an Italian record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record. Napoli fans were banned from attending the match in Turin in October for security reasons and they will now have two matches in quick succession to vent their animosity as their team plays Juventus in the league on Sunday and in the return leg of the Italian Cup semifinals three days later. Napoli is third in Serie A, two points behind Roma and 10 behind Juventus. It trails 3-1 in the cup.
Schalke can settle its angst over an inconsistent season so far with a win over Borussia Dortmund in the 172nd Ruhr derby tomorrow. A victory over the visitors would help Schalke fans get over the disappointment of a season that promised much but has fizzled into mediocrity and could even get worse. Schalke, currently ninth, is just six points off the relegation zone with nine games remaining. Dortmund has also endured a frustrating season but the team has at least recovered to move into third and should be able to defend its automatic Champions League qualification spot. Though Dortmund has won four of its last five league games and Schalke has won only two, form is a footnote when these rivals meet for what is always a highly charged affair. – AP