Scudetto becomes a two-horse race as Roma stumble

No analysis on the handshake that was not, no drooling over Wayne Rooney scoring yet another header, no break-by-break analysis of Aaron Ramsey’s leg (but seriously, hope the guy recovers fully) or any castigating of Ryan Shawcross here in the European football blog – just a recap of some fantastic football from the continent.

I start this week’s round-up in Italy, where the title race looks to be down to just two teams now after Roma could only draw 2-2 away at Napoli, thus ending their long-winning streak. Having led 2-0, the Giallorossi will feel somewhat aggrieved to have conceded twice, the second coming courtesy of a Marek Hamsik penalty in second-half stoppage time. The battle is now between the Milan giants. Depleted Inter ended a run of three consecutive league draws by toppling Udinese at home 3-2. After falling behind early to Simone Pepe’s slotted finish, Inter woke up and fired back through goals from Mario Balotelli, Maicon and Diego Milito – the first two Inter goals were particularly good. Unsurprisingly, it was Serie A’s leading marksman, Antonio di Natale, who reduced the visitor’s arrears from the penalty spot. Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic made a fantastic intervention to prevent Milito and Goran Pandev from increasing the lead and the Zebrette could have stole a point had the crossbar not denied Alexis Sanchez.

Inter’s lead is now four points over city rivals Milan, who secured a bittersweet victory over Atalanta. Yet again, Ronaldinho was magnificent in the victory, having a hand in all three goals, which included a brace for Pato and a goal for Marco Borriello. However, the major concern for Milan is the injury to star striker Pato, who seems to have injured his hamstring, meaning he is a major doubt for the Rossoneri’s second leg match in the Champions League. “Not to have Pato would be terrible,” said Adriano Galliani, Milan’s vice-president. “We don’t have anyone who can replace him. Without him, we would need to change our tactical set-up.”

Moving further down, my player of the weekend is veteran midfielder Martins Adailton of Bologna. The 33 year-old made a surprising contribution in his team’s shock away win at Champions League chasing Genoa, scoring a magnificent hat-trick – all three goals were absolute stunners. Another fourth-place contender, Sampdoria, went down at Parma thanks to a Cristian Zaccardo effort, which ends Sampdoria’s recent run of good form. With both Cagliari losing 2-1 at Chievo and Fiorentina grabbing a last-gasp draw through Keirrison at home against Lazio, the stage was set for either Juventus or Palermo to propel themselves into fourth with a win in Sunday night’s late game. Perhaps a bit of a shock given Alberto Zaccheroni’s good start at the Old Lady, but Palermo won 2-0 in Turin, courtesy of goals from Igor Budan and former Juventus striker, Fabrizio Miccoli. Unfortunately, the Bianconeri’s fans were not pleased and set fire to a section of the stadium. For the Sicilians, however, this was a great result, leaving them two points clear of their disposed rivals.

Catania 4 – 0 Bari
Lazio 1 – 1 Fiorentina
Livorno 1 – 2 Siena
Napoli 2 – 2 Roma
Parma 1 – 0 Sampdoria
Genoa 3 – 4 Bologna
Chievo 2 – 1 Cagliari
Udinese 2 – 3 Inter Milan
Milan 3 – 1 Atalanta
Juventus 0 – 2 Palermo

How good is Gonzalo Higuain? This was what I was thinking as I watched Real Madrid crush Tenerife 5-1 on Saturday night. Sure, the islanders are in the bottom three, but Higuain’s performances this season, much like the last couple of years, has been nothing short of incredible. What impresses me about him is that Karim Benzema was bought in, at a significant cost, to lead the new Real attack. However, the Argentine forward has dug in and let his performances and goal-scoring make it impossible to leave him out of the side. His brace at the weekend, two brilliantly taken goals, one with a glorious bit of skill from Marcelo, makes it 16 goals in the league, just one behind the current Pichichi leading pair of David Villa and Lionel Messi, the latter maintaining Barcelona’s lead at the top of the league with a last-gasp winner at home against Malaga. Thankfully, Diego Maradona has called up Higuain, along with Milito, Messi, Carlos Tevez and Kun Aguero, for the friendly with Germany.

Third-place Valencia were soundly demolished by their hosts Atletico Madrid 4-1. Los Che did have Carlos Marchena and Miguel sent off, but did take the lead through David Silva. The sending off of Marchena for handball was vital and controversial, as it was the fourth official who alerted the referee to the offence. Diego Forlan dispatched the resulting penalty, and despite the heroic’s of Valencia keeper Cesar, pulling off a string of saves to deny the hosts, Aguero nodded in a Simao free-kick with around 15 minutes left. After Miguel’s straight red for a wild lunge at Juan Valera, Forlan coolly finished for his second and Jurado wrapped things up in stoppage time.

10-man Sevilla’s 0-0 draw at Bilbao allowed Mallorca to close the gap on the fourth-place Andalucian’s to three points, with the Balearic islanders winning only their second away match this season 2-1 at Valladolid. Deportivo La Coruna’s Champions League qualification trail suffered a setback when they lost 1-0 at Villarreal. Fourth from bottom Zaragoza pulled away from the bottom-three with an impressive 2-0 away win at Getafe, which opens up a four-point lead for Los Blanquillos.

Getafe 0 – 2 Zaragoza
Tenerife 1 – 5 Real Madrid
Barcelona 2 – 1 Malaga
Xerez 1 – 1 Espanyol
Valladolid 1 – 2 Mallorca
Villarreal 1 – 0 Deportivo
Sporting de Gijon 3 – 2 Osasuna
Racing 0 – 2 Almeria
Sevilla 0 – 0 Athletic Bilbao
Atletico Madrid 4 – 1 Valencia

Daylight at the top of the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich whose 1-0 home win against Hamburg, coupled with Leverkusen’s dour 0-0 draw at home with Cologne, means that the Bavarians have a two-point lead. Franck Ribery will grab the headlines for Bayern after his winner, despite having fluffed his lines with two good opportunities before. This season has seen Bayern utilise Bastian Schweinsteiger in something of a holding midfield role and his performance at the weekend was excellent. When the two sides meant earlier in the season, Hamburg ran the midfield and won the match. Louis van Gaal’s decision to use the German international in this role has been nothing short of a resounding success.

Seven goals in three games now for in-form Brazilian German Cacau, whose brace catapults Stuttgart up to eighth in the table following their 2-1 home win over Eintracht Frankfurt. The striker’s form means that it is likely that he will represent Germany against Argentina in mid-week. Hoffenheim’s Brazilian playmaker, Carlos Eduardo, ran the show as his side condemned Hertha Berlin to another defeat. The Ruhr derby between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund finished 2-1 to Schalke, who are now just two points off Leverkusen. Benedikt Hoewedes was particularly impressive, denying Kevin Grosskreutz with an excellent defensive intervention and popping up to equalise for his side.

Schalke 04 2 – 1 Dortmund
Hertha BSC 0 – 2 TSG Hoffenheim
VfB Stuttgart 2 – 1 Eintracht
VfL Bochum 0 – 0 Nürnberg
Mainz 1 – 2 Werder Bremen
Mönchengladbach 1 – 1 SC Freiburg
Bayer Leverkusen 0 – 0 FC Köln
Hannover 96 0 – 1 VfL Wolfsburg
Bayern Munich 1 – 0 Hamburg

Bordeaux were not in action again this weekend due to the storms in the area. The champions and leaders have two games in hand, but are now joined at the top by Montpellier, who triumphed 3-1 against Rennes thanks to a brace from Joris Marveaux. I watched Lyon stroll in the first-half at home against Nice. After the break, the visitors, a goal down after Lisandro’s tap-in, seemed to fight-back, with French international striker Loic Remy involved in everything good for the visitors. However, Lyon, not at their best but now two points from the top, dug deep and secured the 2-0 win late on thanks to Bafetimbi Gomis’ clumsy finish.

Marseille are poised nicely in fourth place, having played a game less than Montpellier and Lyon above them, but one game more than Bordeaux and just a point back from Lyon. It was a walk in the Parc (awful, I know) for Didier Deschamps charges as they strolled to victory in Paris against PSG. Benoit Cheyrou, finally recognised by Raymond Domenech for a national team call-up, scored the final goal in a 3-0 win. In a game anticipated to be very even, Lille lost at home to Auxerre, who close the gap to the fifth placed team to just two points. Finally, bottom-side Grenoble pulled off a shock victory at Nancy, winning 1-0. Still, the strugglers are 13 points off 17th.

O. Lyon 2 – 0 OGC Nice
Toulouse FC 1 – 0 RC Lens
AS Nancy-Lorraine 0 – 1 Grenoble Foot 38
AS Monaco FC 1 – 0 US Boulogne
Valenciennes FC 1 – 0 AS Saint-Etienne
Montpellier HSC 3 – 1 Stade Rennais FC
Le Mans UC 72 P – P Bordeaux
Lille 1 – 2 AJ Auxerre
PSG 0 – 3 Marseille

Finally, something to cheer up Arsenal fans ahead of their return game against Porto. The Portuguese champions lost away at Sporting 3-0, with goals from Yannick Djalo, Marat Izmailov and Miguel Veloso. Porto have been poor in the league this season and are missing dangerous frontman Hulk through suspension, after it was alleged he attacked a match steward in the tunnel after a match with Benfica in December. Porto do not seem to travel well and this bodes very well for the Gunners.

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