Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi walks on the pitch during the Spanish league football match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on December 19, 2020. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Two defeats in four days have turned up the heat on Serie A leaders AC Milan, while Lionel Messi and Barcelona face Athletic Bilbao for the third time this month and the best of the rest clash in Germany.
AFP Sport selects some of the standout football action in Europe this weekend:
Teetering Milan lean on repentant Ibrahimovic
Bologna v AC Milan, Saturday 1400 GMT
Losses to Juventus and Atalanta this month have slowed AC Milan’s title charge, but three winnable games await Stefano Pioli’s side before next month’s rematch with second-placed Inter Milan.
Inter dumped their city rivals out of the Italian Cup in midweek, in a game largely overshadowed by a stormy exchange between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku, two former Manchester United team-mates.
Ibrahimovic was later sent off and apologised for his behaviour, but denied using racist terms towards Lukaku after reportedly accusing him of using voodoo. The Swede, who has scored in all but one of his eight league starts this term, will be available for the trip to Bologna.
Messi on revenge mission
Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao, Sunday 2000 GMT
Lionel Messi and Barcelona got the better of Athletic Bilbao when the sides met on January 6, the Argentine scoring twice in a 3-2 victory at San Mames, but the Basques settled the score 11 days later in the final of the Spanish Super Cup as Messi was sent off for the first time in his club career.
The two sides square off for a third time in just over three weeks, this time at Camp Nou, as Barca hunt a fifth league win on the bounce to stay within sight of Atletico Madrid.
Messi returned in midweek from a two-match ban for lashing out at Athletic’s Asier Villalibre, scoring the equalising goal as Barca came from behind to beat Rayo Vallecano in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.
Germany’s best of the rest collide
Bayer Leverkusen v RB Leipzig, Saturday 1730 GMT
The prospect of a genuine title race in the Bundesliga appeared credible just weeks ago, but patchy starts to the new year for Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig have allowed Bayern Munich to carve out a seven-point lead.
Leverkusen held top spot before a late Robert Lewandowski goal just before Christmas condemned Peter Bosz’s side to a first defeat of the season, with three more followings in the five games since, plunging them 10 points adrift of Bayern.
Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig enjoyed a brief stint in first place at the start of the month, but last season’s Champions League semi-finalists have won just one of their past four games and crashed to a shock loss at Mainz last weekend.
Famous name returns to Bavaria
Bayern Munich v Hoffenheim, Saturday 1430 GMT
Former Bayern reserve team coach Sebastien Hoeness returns to his old club attempting to do the double over the European champions, following Hoffenheim’s 4-1 victory in the reverse fixture that snapped the Bavarian giants’ 23-match winning streak.
“We had an excellent day. We defended cunningly and had a good plan,” Hoeness told the Bayern website. “Of course there was also a bit of luck. Looking back, we were deserved winners. However, Saturday’s meeting is a game under new conditions.”
Hoeness, 38, is the son of former West Germany and Bayern striker Dieter Hoeness and the nephew of ex-Bayern president Uli. He coached the club’s reserve team to the third division title last season before leaving for Hoffenheim.
Smarting AZ target Ajax revenge
AZ Alkmaar v Ajax, Sunday 1545 GMT
The Covid-19 pandemic brought an abrupt halt to an intriguing battle for the Eredivisie last year, with Ajax ahead of AZ Alkmaar on goal difference when the season was cancelled with nine games left.
As a result Ajax qualified for the Champions League group stage, consigning AZ to qualifying where they ultimately fell short.
Erik ten Hag’s Amsterdam club again lead the way in the Netherlands, with AZ in fourth place and seeking to avenge last week’s 1-0 loss to Ajax in the Dutch Cup last 16.