European Weekend: Five (Random) Matches That Matter

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Barcelona vs. Athletic Bilbao, Spain, Saturday 5:00 p.m. ET

Athletic is coming off another scene-stealing performance mid-week, scoring three late goals at Schalke to take a 4-2 win out of Gelsenkirchen. Those two renew their Europa League tie Thursday in Bilbao but in between, Marcelo Bielsa takes his team to the Nou Camp looking for an elusive win over Europe’s champions. Granted, every team finds victories over Barcelona elusive, but for Bilbao – a team that has drawn Barça three times in four games – it’s different. No team, with the possible exception of Real Madrid, has played Barcelona tighter. Should they breakthrough on Saturday, Barcelona’s title defense may be dealt a final blow.

Player to watch: Javi Martinez – the midfielder-turned-central defender will be crucial to breaking up Barcelona’s attacks as well as helping Bilbao counter Barcelona’s perpetual possession advantage.

Benfica vs. Sporting Braga, Portugal, Saturday 5:15 p.m. ET

Who will win Portugal this year: Benfica or Porto? How about none of the above? Because as the two titans were preoccupied with each other (and Europe), Braga went and snatched first place. They sit one point above Porto, two above Benfica, and – having dropped points in only six of their 24 league matches this season – must be beaten on Saturday for Benfica to maintain a realistic shot of regaining the title. Were the Eagles to win, they’d snap Braga’s 13-match league winning streak.

Player to Watch: Lima – with 19 goals, the 28-year-old Brazilian has seized the lead atop Portugal’s goal-scoring charts. No other Braga player has scored more than five goals.

Juventus vs. Napoli, Italy, Sunday 2:45 p.m. ET

Serie A’s weekend finale could be seen as a preview of May’s Coppa Italia final. It could be seen as another major threat to Juve’s unbeaten run. It could also be seen as a must-win for each side. Juventus not only has their unbeaten season on the line, but sitting four points behind Milan, they can’t afford to drop points. Napoli knows the feeling. They’re only three points behind Lazio for the league’s final Champions League spot.

Player to Watch: Marek Hamsik – One day after Juve president Giovanni Cobolli Gigli admitted the Old Lady passed on the chance to sign the Slovak attacker, it bears reminding Hamsik has scored five times against Juventus.

Kaiserslautern vs. Hamburg, Germany, Saturday 9:30 a.m. ET

Amazingly, Hamburg might get relegated. Through 27 (of 34) rounds, they have 27 points, sit 16th, and if the season ended today, they’d play-off against a promotion candidate for the right to stay in the 1. Bundesliga. If they’re going to break their four-match losing streak, Saturday’s the time, as they visit last-place Kaiserslautern. A loss would be spirit-breaking.

Player to Watch: Jaroslav Drobny – looking set to win a fitness race ahead of Saturday’s match, the Czech goalkeeper will need to up his game, with Hamburg having allowed 16 goals in their last five matches.

Anderlecht vs. Kortrijk, Belgium, Sunday 12:00 p.m. ET

The second stage of Beligum’s championship started on Friday, with Club Brugge’s 2-0 home win over Genk pulling them even at the top. Now it’s up to Anderlecht to re-establish their lead, and having gone 13 unbeaten in league, don’t expect the purple and white to be tripped up easily. Kortrijk has been outscored by Anderlecht 22-2 since they returned to Beligum’s top level in 2008, losing all 10 matches.

Player to Watch: Sacha Kljestan – the U.S. international’s 29 appearances lead all Anderlecht’s outfield players, and while Guillaume Gillet’s 12 goals have deservedly garnered headlines, the former Chivas USA stalwart continues to reward Anderlecht’s dip into Major League Soccer.