Cup competitions have taken centre stage across Europe over the past week or so, but league duties return this weekend for the majority of the top divisions.
For English clubs the weekend signals the beginning of normality being restored to the fixture schedule following the busy Christmas and New Year period.
Teams in Germany, France and Portugal also have big matches coming up this weekend as title challenges and relegation battles continue to take shape around the continent.
Here, we round up the biggest, best and most important matches from the upcoming weekend.
Liverpool vs. Manchester City
Liverpool have dominated the headlines off the field with their British-record sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona, and the Reds will embark upon the post-Brazilian era on Sunday with a tricky test against the Manchester City juggernaut.
It would take an unprecedented collapse for Man City to throw away the Premier League title from this position, having picked up a staggering 62 points from the 66 on offer so far this season to build a 15-point lead over their nearest challengers.
Liverpool are a full 18 points adrift of the runaway leaders, but Jurgen Klopp’s side have won their last four games across all competitions and are unbeaten in 17 stretching all the way back to October.
Liverpool are also yet to taste defeat at Anfield in any competition this season, although Man City have won 14 of their 16 away games and have only dropped two Premier League points on the road all term.
Virgil van Dijk, who surpassed Man City’s Kyle Walker as the most expensive defender of all time with his move to Liverpool, could make his Premier League debut for his new club as Klopp looks to avenge the 5-0 defeat from the reverse fixture – Man City’s second win of what would go on to become a record 18-match run of victories.
Liverpool were very much in that game until Sadio Mane picked up a controversial red card, though, and they may fancy their chances of wrecking City’s bid for invincibility having not lost any of their last 12 Premier League meetings with City at Anfield, winning eight of those.
Sheffield United vs. Sheffield Wednesday
Sheffield will come alive on Friday night when United host Wednesday in the Steel City derby for the first time since October 2011.
The Blades were only promoted from League One last season, but they have quickly established themselves amongst the playoff contenders in the Championship with just one point separating them from sixth-placed Leeds United heading into the weekend.
Indeed, victory for Sheffield United would temporarily lift them as high as fifth in the table and only four points off the automatic promotion places, so there is far more than just bragging rights up for grabs on Friday.
Wednesday did make the playoffs last season, but they are more focused on keeping themselves at arm’s length of the relegation zone this time around with six points currently separating them from the bottom three.
The Owls have only won one of their last 11 matches across all competitions and new boss Jos Luhukay will be given a baptism of fire in his first match at the helm, becoming the first manager in the 125-year history of the Steel City rivalry to make his bow in a derby.
The bragging rights currently belong to United following their 4-2 win in September’s reverse fixture at Hillsborough, and they have now lost just one of the last five derbies against their fiercest rivals.
MK Dons vs. AFC Wimbledon Saturday 4pm
The rivalry between MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon is one of the newest in English football, but the ill-feeling between the two clubs is every bit as intense of those rivalries which have been around for more than a century.
The old Wimbledon are steeped in football history having flown up the English pyramid in the 1970s and 1980s before the ‘Crazy Gang’ memorably beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final at Wembley – one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history.
By 2003 Wimbledon had upped sticks from South London to Milton Keynes 56 miles away, though, prompting disgruntled Wimbledon fans to form the phoenix club AFC Wimbledon, while their old team changed their name to the MK Dons.
AFC Wimbledon quickly raced through non-league and back into the Football League, and they will have another opportunity to get one over on their arch-rivals on Saturday when the two sides meet at Stadium:mk in League One.
As if there wasn’t enough spice to the fixture already it is also a relegation six-pointer, with AFC Wimbledon currently sitting in the bottom four and MK Dons just two places and two points better off.
Victory for Wimbledon could see them climb out of the relegation zone and plunge MK Dons further into danger, then, and the visitors have only lost one of their last four games compared to just two victories in 15 for the Dons.
This will be only the seventh meeting between the two sides, with MK Dons having won four and lost two so far, including a 2-0 victory in the September reverse fixture.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich
Two of the top four in the Bundesliga go head to head on Friday night as leaders and defending champions Bayern Munich travel to take on Bayer Leverkusen at the BayArena.
Following a shaky start to the season which resulted in them sacking Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern have quickly restored their iron grip over the division and return from the winter break with an 11-point lead at the top of the table.
Indeed, Bayern have won 15 of their 16 matches across all competitions since Jupp Heynckes returned to the helm, including six in a row in the build-up to the winter break.
Leverkusen, along with the rest of the chasing pack, will not be focused so much on catching Bayern, but rather securing their place in a very competitive battle for the Champions League places.
Only four points separate second-placed Schalke from eighth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt, and Leverkusen are one of four teams to have been locked on 28 points during the winter break – two of whom currently sit in the top four and two of whom are the wrong side of the dotted line.
Leverkusen are one of the teams in the coveted Champions League places as things stand, but they have won just one of their last 11 meetings with Bayern, losing seven in that time.
RB Leipzig vs. Schalke 04
Leverkusen’s clash with Bayern Munich is not the only high-flying contest in the Bundesliga this weekend, with fifth-placed RB Leipzig also hosting second-placed Schalke at the Red Bull Arena.
Leipzig are another one of those four teams currently level on 28 points, but they sit the wrong side of the dotted line by virtue of their inferior goal difference.
Victory on Saturday would see them end the weekend in the Champions League places, though, while that part of the table is so crowded that defeat for Schalke could see them tumble from second to as low as sixth should results go against them.
The form book points towards a victory for the visitors, though, with Schalke going into the winter break on a 13-match unbeaten streak across all competitions which stretches all the way back to September.
Leipzig, by contrast, picked up only two points from 12 on offer during a four-game winless streak before the winter break, and they will be eager to make up lost ground in their first competitive outing of 2018.
Schalke won the reverse fixture between these two sides on the opening day of the season, but they have only made one previous visit to the Red Bull Arena and fell to a 2-1 defeat on that occasion last season.
Braga vs. Benfica
It is third against fourth in the Primeira Liga on Saturday evening when Benfica travel to take on Braga with only three points separating the two sides in the table. Benfica, meanwhile, sit five points adrift of leaders Porto.
The home side are definitely up against the odds judging by the history between both sides but would be boosted by the fact that they ended the first half of the season with three consecutive victories.
Benfica by the way have lost just once in the league all season though and would also fancy their chances as they aim to push up the table in their quest to retain the Primeira Liga title they won last May.
Benfica have won against Sporting Braga in 9 of the last 10 meetings between both sides in all competitions although their most recent meeting at the Estadio Da Luz ended in a draw.
Real Sociedad vs. FC Barcelona
There is a 25-point gap between Barça and La Real at the moment but the fixture is surely one of the most anticipated in the La Liga calendar in the last decade or so.
The Anoeta has been the bogey ground for La Blaugrana in the La Liga as Barcelona have failed to win their on their last 7 visits, their last win on that ground coming under dutchman Frank Rijkaard as far back as 2007!
Real Sociedad though, are in dire need of 3 points and would hope that Barça don’t find the key to break this jinx yet. La Real have won just one match in all competitions since the end of November and with Barcelona unbeaten since losing both legs of the Super Cup in August, a win for Real looks alot more unlikely.
It is the biggest match in Spain this weekend. Can Barça break the Anoeta hoodoo? It is left to be seen.
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