Last time we did this, it was easy – not that it’s difficult when you have one of the world’s great intra-city derbies, a cup final, and a one versus two battle in one of Europe’s best leagues. It’s just that in our last edition of five to watch, we had Barcelona. We had Juventus. We had big, glamorous, self-explanatory names.
This week, the matches are no less interesting, but things being a little less self-explanatory, I have to do a little bit more writing, starting with the rivalry:
5. Austria Wien vs. Rapid Wien, Austrian Bunesliga, 10:00 a.m. ET, Sunday
Austria’s two most successful, most popular clubs saw their rivalry get some unfortunate international attention last year when pitch invaders caused a May meeting to be abandoned. If you look at the numbers and organization of police in this video, you can’t help but think these type of incidents (or the potential for them) is pervasive in this derby:
Let me be clear: That kind of nonsense is no reason to watch. It’s reason to be thankful that this part of the world has a soccer culture that precludes idiots forcing matches to be called off. Knock on wood.
Since last May, three Wien derbies have been waged, making Saturday’s the 300th meeting between the clubs. Rapid will be looking for the 125th win, while Austria sits on 109.
More important: Both clubs are chasing Red Bull Salzburg for the Bundesliga’s title. Rapid are only one point back with seven matches left, and with Salzburg facing a tough Saturday visit to Sturm Graz (fifth place), the Green-Whites could find themselves first at day’s end.
For Austria, it’s a must win match. Five points back of first, the Violets can’t afford to lose any more ground on the leaders.
Player to watch: Last season with Sturm Graz, Roman Kienast finished second in goals to Austria’s Ronald Linz (19 to 21). He moved to Austria in the winter window but has been unable to replace the goal output of the departed Nacer Barazite (who moved to Monaco in January). With only one score in 10 league appearances, Kienast has been an early bust.
4. Zenit vs. CSKA Moscow, Russian Premier League, 11:00 a.m. ET, Saturday
This match is difficult to resist, even if Zenit has put the RPL to bed. In this transition season that’s been played over 18 months (as Russia moves to a fall-spring schedule), Zenit has pulled away from their Muscovite adversaries, sitting 11 points clear with six matches remaining.
Unfortunately, the achievements of Luciano Spalletti’s side are being overshadowed by a story that has become ridiculously common to Russian soccer. Earlier this week, Zenit was fined after fans directed monkey noises at Lokomotiv Moscow’s black players.
On the field, it’s a potential great news, bad news scenario for CSKA. The bad news: Captain and best defender Sergei Ignashevich will miss the match with a broken toe. The potentially great news: One of the world’s best goalkeepers, Igor Akinfeev, could return after a long-term injury absence stemming from a controversial fall collision with Spartak attacker Welliton. The 26-year-old’s return from major knee surgery could be a huge boost to Russia’s Euro 2012 hopes.
Player to watch: Sergei Semak could also be in frame for Euro 2012, if Russia head coach Dick Advocaat sees things like Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The Zenit attacker claims his 36-year-old teammate could help the national team this summer, and looking around at Advocaat’s other deep-lying midfield options, you can see the logic. The former national team captain has three goals in his last eight appearances, and against his former club on Saturday, Semak could continue making his case.
3. PSV vs. AZ, Netherlands’ Eredivisie, 12:45 p.m. ET, Saturday
Possibly the most interesting title race in Europe was dealt a blow mid-week when AZ was drawn at home by Twente. The result meant the league’s second and third place teams lost ground on pace-setting Ajax, who’ve rode the crest of an up-and-down year to a three-point lead.
The circuit’s other traditional power, PSV, has also been on a roller coaster. At one point, the club was storming through Europa while sitting in control of league. Since the calendar turned, however, things have fallen apart. Valencia rolled them out of Europa while the club fell to fifth in the table, leading to Phillip Cocu to replace Fred Rutten as head coach. Since, PSV has claimed the Dutch Cup, though nobody will be satisfied finishing so low in league.
AZ, however, has been the Netherlands’ most consistent team (on Thursday, Johan Cruyff went as far as to call them the best in Holland), and on Saturday, they’ll take the league’s best defense to Philips Stadion. In August’s reverse fixture, goals from Maarten Martins, Nick Viergever and Jozy Altidore led AZ to a 3-1 victory, and while the bookmakers have PSV big favorites ahead of Saturday’s rematch, don’t be surprised if Gertjan Verbeek’s side creates another dip in PSV’s rollercoaster.
Player to watch: If you’re going to watch this one, you’ll likely tune in to see Altidore. I can’t blame you, but if you have time for one more player, keep an eye on PSV’s 22-year-old midfielder Kevin Strootman. Already in the plans of the national team, Strootman gives Bert van Marwijk a decidedly less violent, more creative option in the pivot.
2. Udinese vs. Internazionale, Italian Serie A, 2:45 p.m. ET, Saturday
This is really happening. This Inter Milan zombie may really get back into Europe.
The Nerazzurri sit in seventh, their 48 points only two back of Roma in fifth (otherwise known as a Europa League spot). Their seven points in three matches have converted a fews believers to the Andrea Stramaccioni movement. Now, the six-point gap to third doesn’t look so big, particularly with a season-closing match at Lazio. With six matches left, maybe Champions League isn’t out of the question after all.
Udinese’s won once in their last seven matches, and while they’re only three points out of that Champions League spot, the parade of big names behind them force the Bianconeri to be mindful of a fall. If Inter hand Udinese their second home loss of the season, Udinese could be in seventh come Sunday night.
Player to watch: With Walter Samuel suspended, it will be up to Lucio to handle Udinese’s Toto Di Natale, Italy’s second leading goal-scorer. Having conceded seven times since Stramaccioni took over, Inter desperately needs somebody at the back to assert themselves.
1. Olympique Lyon vs. Olympique Marseille, France’s Coupe de la Ligue final, 3:00 p.m. ET, Saturday
In addition to being ninth-place Marseille’s last chance for Europe, Saturday’s final is a snapshot of the changing face of Ligue 1. Well, perhaps describing it as the “face” is wrong. With former perennial titlists Lyon fighting for their Champions League lives while a club as big as Marseille regresses to mediocrity, this match is more France’s disappearing jawline than its face.
The game also see rivals at different ends of the form table. After being eliminated from Champions League by APOEL, Lyon has won six, drawn one in seven games, registering victories over Rennes, PSG, Lille as well as winning their derby at Saint-Étienne. Marseille, one the other hand, has not won a lead match since Jan. 29 and have lost 11 of 12.
Form aside, this is still two of the biggest clubs in France, and they’re playing for silverware. Given it’s the last chance for Didier Deschamps’ side to salvage anything from a horrible season, expect the best l’OM has to offer.
Player to watch: Lisandro Lopez is always worth watching, but during Lyon’s resurgence, the talisman has six goals in seven. Having struggled through injuries all year, the Argentine attacker appears to have hit a run of form that could carry OL into Champions League.
Also worth following: Schalke 04 vs. Borussia Dortmund, Germany, 9:30 a.m. ET, Saturday; Benfica vs. Gil Vicente, League Cup Portugal, 3:45 p.m. ET, Saturday