The Big Weekend Preview

Domestic football returns and in England this can’t come quick enough as a genuine title race appears to be developing. There are also some great games to look forward to in Europe with Real Madrid travelling to Malaga and a top v bottom clash in France as Marseille visit struggling Saint Etienne.

Fulham v Liverpool, Premier League, April 4, 2009

Liverpool travel to Craven Cottage on Saturday tea time hoping to keep the pressure on leaders Manchester United and if they claim all three points they would go two points clear having played two games more before United host Aston Villa on Sunday.

Despite the international break, Liverpool’s incredible form has not been forgotten. Rafa Benitez’s side demolished Real Madrid over two legs, hammered United at Old Trafford and then ripped apart a demoralized Aston Villa in four incredible performances.

The momentum is clearly with the Merseyside giants and crucially it appears that Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have returned in one piece from international duty. Two players who will also come back in buoyant mood are Spaniards Xabi Alonso and Albert Riera who were both on the scoresheet as Spain came from 1-0 down to win in Turkey.

One fact Rafa Benitez will have to deal with though is the upcoming Champions League clash with Chelsea on Wednesday. The Spaniard has previous in this area, as in May 2007 with the Champions League final looming; Liverpool lost 1-0 at Craven Cottage with a number of players rested.

It is unlikely that Torres and Gerrard will be kept back with the momentum in Liverpool’s corner and perhaps the best the Reds can hope for is to score early goals to sow up the game and then rest their match winners.

Fulham however are unlikely to be pushovers as they proved last time out with a spirited 2-0 win over Manchester United. That day the strike force of Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora caused problems all afternoon and having had two weeks rest they will be chomping at the bit to get at Liverpool.

The Cottagers usually make life difficult for Liverpool, the first game this season at Anfield finished 0-0 and they have beaten them two out of the last three games at home in the league.

Liverpool have to win, Fulham will provide a real test and Benitez’s tinkering could be slated once again but with such great momentum and with real belief now coursing through the side, the Reds could well prevail and keep the pressure on at the top.

101gg predicts: Fulham 2 – Liverpool 3 (28/1) & Steven Gerrard to score in both halves to celebrate his new contract extension (22/1).

Full match odds here.

Malaga CF v Real Madrid, Primera Division, April 4, 2009

After losing 6-0 to Barcelona in its last game, Malaga will try to bounce back when it meets another one of La Liga’s giants, Real Madrid.

Malaga, the surprise package of the league this season, lie in 8th place in the table, fighting for a UEFA Cup place, while Real must win in order to stay close to Barcelona.

With Malaga playing at home, perhaps this time Antonio Tapia’s team will be able to match its giant rival. Against Barcelona, Malaga looked desperate; its players struggled to control the ball, allowing the Catalans to move freely in the midfield and destroy them early in the first half. But Real Madrid is a different team, and this will be a different game.

“Madrid are a balanced team and they are well organised, with a great defence that makes them difficult to beat. The problem is that if you do not score goals they can do a lot of damage, as they have a good front line and with a just a few chances can win the game,” Tapia said ahead of the match.

Malaga will continue relying on a 4-5-1 formation, which is not a defensive one as two attacking wingers, a central attacking one and the striker push forward all the time. The home side will try to use the pace of Eliseu and Fernando on the wings to surprise Real, while the useful Alberto Luque will have a free role and Salva Ballesta in the center can definitely cause damage to the Blancos.

The majority of Real Madrid’s stars have been away from trainings this week due to international matches, something which might have an effect on the match. Young midfielder Dani Parejo commented on the issue by saying: “Such a situation affects teams like ours because we have so many internationals and very few days to recover. However, we will still do our best to beat Malaga for the three points.”

Real, which is in great form, will continue playing its 4-4-2 attacking formation. With so many dangerous players up front and the attacking approach of Malaga, we should expect to see a game with a lot of chances, a game which will be played mostly from box to box and less time in the midfield.

101gg predicts: Malaga 2 – Real Madrid 3 (25/1)

Full match odds here.

AS Saint Etienne v Olympique Marseille, Ligue 1, April 5, 2009

This game, between two of the biggest teams in France, pits title chasing Marseille against a St. Etienne side battling against the dreaded drop.

Having claimed 10 championships in their history, no one thought Saint Etienne would be in 18th position in April with a real chance of dropping down into Ligue 2 at the end of the season. If they don’t start performing, “The Greens” will be playing against the likes of Dijon, En Avant Guingamp and SC Bastia.

After elimination from the UEFA Cup, against German side Werder Bremen, the home side can now focus on a great escape. Coach Alain Perrin claims he knows the failings of his players and expects a fresh start.

Perrin: “I know where these errors are, now we will enter a new cycle. After the break, we have one game per week to manage and we will have time to focus and prepare ourselves for the next game. Here, players will be able to give their full measure, match by match.”

For a team with some highly-rated players, 16 defeats is a poor return. With the likes of Jeremie Janot in goal, Efstathios Tavlaridis at the back, Daisuke Matsui and Geoffrey Dernis in the midfield and with great attackers like Bafetimbi Gomis, Ilan and Dimitri Payet, St Etienne still have enough quality to stay in Ligue 1.

But they will face a quality OM side who are having a fine campaign, just one point behind perennial champions Lyon. January signing Brandao, who has made an impact in the last four games with two goals and an assist, is a doubt due to an injury picked up in training.

Also expected to be out are Laurent Bonnart , Karim Ziani and Boudewijn Zenden. As a result, Hatem Ben Arfa and Niang will likely start at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.

Despite a poor season, Bafetimbi Gomis remains one of St Etienne’s most dangerous players and with just seven goals so far he will be aiming to recover the form of the 2007/2008 season that saw him earn a place in the Euro 2008 squad.

For OM, Hatem Ben Arfa is beginning to receive the trust of coach Eric Gerets who said: “Technically, he is at the top. I hope he understands that talent is not enough to make a great career.”

Gerets will be hoping that Ben Arfa produces the form of the first game between these two sides in November when he scored one and provided two assists in a 3-1 win at the Stade Vélodrome.

101gg predicts: St Etienne 2 – Marseille 2 (14/1)

Full match odds here.