Barcelona vs Athletic part three, Leipzig title hopes on the line, top-four fights and what to watch in Europe

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Lionel Messi for Barcelona (AFP via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi for Barcelona (AFP via Getty Images)

All eyes in England this weekend might be on Arsenal vs Manchester United, the Premier League’s great rivalry of yesteryear - but around the Continent there are a host of crunch clashes to focus on with a lot more current relevance.

Midweek league action was largely the domain of the English game for a change, with Italy’s finest indulging in Coppa Italia action and Spain following suit with the Copa del Rey.

But it’s all back to the bread-and-butter of Serie A, LaLiga and the Bundesliga over the weekend.

READ MORE: Champions League knock-out fixtures — all matches by date and kick-off time

We’ve got our eyes on the title challengers, the Champions League hopefuls and the main headline-makers this time out.

Here are all the major storylines to watch out for around Europe this weekend.

Rivalry renewed in LaLiga

Barcelona against Athletic is one of those fixtures which seems to be played about 12 times a season.

Pick any era, and matches between these two giant, historical clubs of Spain - with their incredible identities which stretch far beyond the football pitch - can pretty much be defined by a memorable match or occasion, often involving an Argentinian wearing a No. 10 shirt: Maradona and the fight of 1984. Messi and his incredible solo goal in 2015. Messi again and the first club red card of his career... all of a week-and-a-half ago.

On Sunday, they go at it again - a third meeting in the space of 25 days. Barca won in the league at Nuevo San Mames thanks to a masterclass from their soon-to-be-out-of-contract captain, but when he was sent-off in the Super Cup final it was Athletic who emerged triumphant. Both games finished 3-2, the latter after extra time, and there’s little reason to expect less excitement this time around.

Messi is back from suspension, but who else could have a big impact? Frenkie de Jong is finding his best form and impacting in front of goal, while Ousmane Dembele is finally putting a run of starts together for Barca. For Athletic, veteran attacker Raul Garcia has five goals in their last four games - all of which have been won.

It’s a tough ask to make it five in a row at the Camp Nou, especially as Barca will no doubt need to win to stay within touching distance of Real Madrid, currently three points ahead of the Catalan outfit in second. Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, are still seven points clear at the top with a game in hand.

Pivotal weekend in Champions League chase

All over Europe, that is. Top four hopefuls - or top three in some leagues - will be butting heads and hoping to prove their value as title challengers, top-four certainties or gatecrashers, with crucial points taken off direct rivals.

LaLiga has Villarreal hosting Real Sociedad, both early-season front-runners but now fifth and sixth respectively - and both suffering far too many draws to stay competitive. 1-1 on Saturday night, then.

Leipzig head coach Julian NagelsmannPOOL/AFP via Getty Images
Leipzig head coach Julian NagelsmannPOOL/AFP via Getty Images

In the Bundesliga, it’s higher up the table we look: second vs third, RB Leipzig hosting Bayer Leverkusen. The latter were excellent in beating Dortmund a couple of games ago, but showed why they won’t challenge for the title with a home defeat to Wolfsburg last time out. Leipzig themselves have only won one of the last four, though - between them, each of the would-be challengers are proving inconsistent enough to let Bayern stroll to the title once more.

Ligue 1 offers a similar storyline to Spain, where the weekend winners could emerge to push for Champions League spots and the losers left playing catch-up in a secondary group; Lyon (third) host Bordeaux (seventh) on Friday night before Marseille (sixth) play Rennes (fifth) on Saturday.

Finally, Serie A’s game of the weekend could come in Bergamo, where Atalanta have jumped into fourth on the back of a 10-game unbeaten run in league play, but host Lazio, fresh off four successive wins, who are currently sixth, just two points behind Atalanta in an enthralling fight between at least four clubs for third and fourth... or the Europa League.

Best of the rest

Still want more? Luckily, that’s one thing the world of football always provides.

So here’s a full Saturday-Sunday-Monday feast of relevant clashes for your amusement, stretching even further afield than usual.

Yes, these are the storylines around Europe, but we’ll make an exception for Saturday - the Copa Libertadores final, featuring Brazilian pair Palmeiras and Santos. It will be shown on BBC’s iPlayer and Red Button, so it’s an easy chance to see which side will rival the likes of Bayern Munich and Tigres UANL in next month’s Club World Cup.

On Sunday, the Eredivisie title fight could be much clearer after Feyenoord play PSV - that’s fifth versus second - and Ajax travel to AZ Alkmaar, first away to fourth.

And just to extend the feast of action even further, the Liga NOS in Portugal offers up the Derbi de Lisboa on Monday night, Sporting CP against Benfica.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s former club lead the table, six points clear of their local rivals who are third. Even at this early stage, Benfica might need to inflict a first league defeat of the season on Sporting if they harbour title hopes for this year.

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