Out of all four leagues this blog covers, three of them saw the top two match each other stride for stride in the battle for the title. However, in the other league, the leaders fluffed their lines allowing the chasing pack to ignite the title race.
It is in Italy that I start for a variety of reasons. Friday night’s game pitted champions and leaders Inter against lowly Catania, with the hosts in a relegation battle. Diego Milito broke the deadlock after 54 minutes for Jose Mourinho’s side, who were in action early because of their Champions League match against Chelsea, but the home side rallied and scored three times in the last 15 minutes to secure the most unlikely of victories. With the Rossazzurri in the ascendancy for the early stages of the first half, Inter managed to peg back their opponents, slowing the game down to their pace. However, Catania responded well to falling behind and were level with 15 minutes remaining thanks to Maxi Lopez’s third goal in Italian football, beating Lucio to Jorge Martinez’s centre and finishing neatly from six yards. The match turned on its head with the introduction of Sulley Muntari, who proceeded to receive one of the quickest red cards in Serie A history. Having picked up a yellow card for a foul on the edge of the area just seconds after being brought on, the Ghanaian handled the subsequent free-kick inside the box, which was deemed a second bookable offence and gave the home side a penalty. Giuseppe Mascara cheekily dinked the penalty down the middle to the horror of Julio Cesar who had already committed himself. The celebrations began in full after the excellent Martinez dribbled past Lucio, who was pretty poor throughout, and slotted past Julio Cesar to add an extra coat of gloss to a fantastic performance by the strugglers.
Inter’s loss meant that Milan could close the gap to a single point if they could overcome Chievo at the San Siro. Milan, absolutely hammered in mid-week by Manchester United, made hard-work of beating their opponents, failing to capitalise upon good opportunities and then luckily seeing Chievo hit the post and have a goal ruled out for offside. Having seen the incident, the decision was tenuous to say the least. Substitute Clarence Seedorf found the top corner from the edge of the box in second-half stoppage time, ensuring that the Rossoneri are now breathing heavily down the neck of their great rivals. As you all know, the victory was seriously soured by the ruptured Achilles tendon suffered by David Beckham, which is likely to keep him out of the World Cup and definitely ends his part in Milan’s title charge – a sad way for a great professional and technically gifted player to probably end his international career.
Roma lost touch with the leading duo, only managing a 3-3 draw at home to Livorno in a game that was low on quality but high on goals. Veteran striker Cristiano Lucarelli scored all three of the vistors goals, the last being from the penalty spot after Juan’s handball. David Pizarro had the chance to make it 4-2 prior to this, but his penalty hit the post, after goals by the Chilean, Luca Toni and Simone Perrotta had given the Giallorossi the lead. Palermo remained fourth despite a 3-2 loss away to Udinese, who are now seven points clear from the relegation zone. The Sicilians held on to fourth because Juventus, enduring a torrid season overall, managed to squander a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 with bottom side Siena. Alessandro del Piero grabbed an early brace and Antonio Candreva added a third to give the Old Lady a seemingly unassailable lead. However, Massimo Maccarone and Abdelkader Ghezzal brought the visitors back into the game with a goal apiece and when Zdenek Grygera fouled Maccarone in the box, Ghezzal stepped up to convert the penalty. Entertainment of the weekend in Italy was provided by Genoa and Cagliari, with the former taking the spoils 5-3, with a goal each for eight different players. Lazio’s relegation worries heightened after a diabolical 2-0 defeat to resurgent Bari.
Catania 3 – 1 Inter Milan
Napoli 1 – 3 Fiorentina
Udinese 3 – 2 Palermo
Genoa 5 – 3 Cagliari
Juventus 3 – 3 Siena
Livorno 3 – 3 Roma
Bologna 1 – 1 Sampdoria
Parma 1 – 0 Atalanta
Lazio 0 – 2 Bari
Milan 1 – 0 Chievo
Two more hat-tricks to talk of, this time in Spain, where Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi ensured that the situation at the top of the table in La Liga remained the same after the weekend. Messi’s second-half hat-trick helped Barcelona see off Valencia 3-0 at the Camp Nou, securing a much needed win after a run of two wins, one draw and a defeat for the Catalan side. The holders of the Champions League found it hard to impose their game on the visitors in the first-half, but the introduction of Thierry Henry for Bojan at half-time seemed to change proceedings drastically, as the Frenchman laid on the second and third for Messi, the last one being a delicate chip that left Valencia goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez floored. Valencia were not helped when Hedwiges Maduro was dismissed for two bookable offences with his side trailing 1-0 and they sorely missed star striker David Villa, out through injury. Real Madrid were desperate to bounce back after being dumped out of the Champions League mid-week and Cristiano Ronaldo, the driving force of this Real side, netted a trademark free-kick away to Valladolid. Indeed, this was another magnificent performance from Ronaldo, who had even more of the centre stage given that Kaka was missing from the squad for the game, apparently through injury – I use the word apparent because Kaka has been receiving major flak from the Spanish press for his lack of impact in many games this season and there were some issues with his representative calling the boss Manuel Pellegrini ‘a coward’ for substituting the Brazilian during the second-leg against Lyon, despite him being pretty anonymous throughout. Higuain was another player criticised after the midweek game for that miss, but the Argentine responded in terrific fashion, netting a clinical hat-trick to move him second on 19 goals behind Messi in the race for the Pichichi. Suffice to say, Ronaldo was instrumental in Higuain’s hat-trick, laying on two goals for the striker. Despite another in a lengthening list of recent mistakes by Iker Casillas, Real secured a 4-1 victory.
Elsewhere, a goal in each half from Joseba Llorente helped Villarreal to a 2-0 home win over bottom side Xerez. Tenerife notched up only their sixth win of the season, soundly beating visiting Espanyol 4-1, relegation-threatened Racing Santander and Real Zaragoza drew 0-0 and a Fernando Soriano goal gave Almeria a 1-0 home victory over Malaga. The other big news was the loss of Mallorca at Getafe 3-0. Mallorca’s loss turned out to be slightly favourable for Sevilla as they moved a point ahead of the islanders in the race for fourth after a 1-1 draw with fellow Europe contenders Deportivo.
Getafe 3 – 0 Mallorca
Sporting de Gijon 0 – 0 Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla 1 – 1 Deportivo
Villarreal 2 – 0 Xerez
Tenerife 4 – 1 Espanyol
Almeria 1 – 0 Malaga
Racing 0 – 0 Zaragoza
Barcelona 3 – 0 Valencia
Valladolid 1 – 4 Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid L – L Osasuna
A severely depleted Bayern Munich side managed to stage a fight back to overcome Freiburg at the Allianz Arena thanks to a brace from Arjen Robben. With the Bavarians missing injured Franck Ribery, Mario Gomez and Martin Demichelis and suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger, Robben came to the rescue after the struggling visitors, though you might not have believed that from their display, took the lead through Cedric Makiadi. Unlike the mid-week piledriver that Robben unleashed, this time it was the Dutchman’s dead-ball ability that impressed as he converted a free-kick and then a penalty after Thomas Muller was brought down. Schalke maintained their title charge by beating an in-form Stuttgart side 2-1 with Kevin Kuranyi grabbing the winner. Third-place Bayer Leverkusen kept in touch with Bayern Munich as well, winning a tricky home game against an always dangerous Hamburg side 4-2 thanks in part to Bundesliga’s top scorer Stefan Kiessling’s brace.
In a relegation fight, Nuremburg grabbed a last-minute winner courtesy of Angelos Charisteas at Hertha Berlin to take the spoils 2-1, which leaves the capital city side nine points from safety. This was too much for the supporters, who saw their side mixing it at the top of the table last year, and they proceeded to storm the pitch. Worryingly, some of these fans were armed with steel bars, leading to clashes between them and the police.
Schalke 04 2 – 1 VfB Stuttgart
Mainz 1 – 0 FC Köln
Hertha BSC 1 – 2 Nürnberg
VfL Bochum 1 – 4 Borussia
Mönchengladbach 0 – 4 VfL Wolfsburg
Hannover 96 2 – 1 Eintracht
Bayern Munich 2 – 1 SC Freiburg
TSG Hoffenheim 0 – 1 Werder Bremen
Bayer Leverkusen 4 – 2 Hamburg
Finally, to France, where the top two could only manage draws. Bordeaux, perhaps with one eye on their Champions League clash with Olympiakos, drew 0-0 with Monaco in a dour game that I had the displeasure of viewing! This followed the champions’ midweek defeat to Auxerre, which was one of their two games in hand over their rivals. Montpellier were unable to take advantage of this, though they bettered Bordeaux by salvaging a point from their tie with Auxerre, who are now up into third, just a point off the top two. Lille are now fourth, though they were a tad fortunate as they were thankful to a Bostjan Cesar own goal to secure a 1-0 home win over bottom side Grenoble. In a pulsating derby match, Lyon shared the spoils with their fierce rivals Saint Etienne in a 1-1 draw at Stade Gerland. With some of the players from the impressive draw at the Bernabeu on the bench, Lyon struggled in the first-half, with the visitors trio of Bakary Sako, Gonzalo Bergessio and Emanuel Riviere finding space behind the home side’s rearguard. Unsurprisingly, it was Bergessio who found Riviere with an excellent cross, and the young striker made no mistake, sending a diving header across Hugo Lloris into the left corner. Miralem Pjanic, terrific in midweek, had little impact on the game and was sacrificed for Lisandro Lopez, who missed a glorious opportunity to win the midweek game for Lyon late-on. Despite the striker missing a couple of good chances after his introduction, he leapt highest after a ball in from the right and powered it in off the post. Lyon sit fifth, joint on points with Lille, both of whom are just two points off Bordeaux and Montpellier. Marseille also drew, leaving them three points off the top in sixth after a 1-1 away draw at Toulouse. Marseille, like Bordeaux, have a game in hand on the teams around them, thus they are in a good position right now in what looks to be the closest title race in Europe in recent memory.
AS Nancy-Lorraine 1 – 3 US Boulogne
PSG 4 – 1 FC Sochaux
FC Lorient 1 – 0 RC Lens
AS Monaco FC 0 – 0 Bordeaux
Le Mans UC 72 0 – 1 OGC Nice
Montpellier HSC 1 – 1 AJ Auxerre
O. Lyon 1 – 1 AS Saint-Etienne
Valenciennes FC 0 – 2 Stade Rennais FC
Lille 1 – 0 Grenoble Foot 38
Toulouse FC 1 – 1 Marseille
Next time, I will be covering the Champions League quarter final and semi final draw, which is on Friday, giving you my first impression on the ties in Europe’s leading competition.