Niko Kovac sets Bayern Munich bar high ahead of Der Klassiker

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Bayern Munich boss Niko Kovac insists his side are desperate to replace Borussia Dortmund at the summit of the Bundesliga in Saturday’s seismic 100th league instalment of ‘Der Klassiker’.

Two points separate first and second in the table heading into a showdown at the Allianz Arena that is shaping up to be a potential title decider.

Dortmund have seen a nine-point lead established in December disintegrate but Bayern have also suffered their own dip recently.

Both clubs were knocked out of the Champions League by English opposition, leaving them to concentrate on a thrilling domestic title race.

“Second place is the first loser. We want to win,” said Kovac.

“The game on Saturday is very, very important. We all know what’s at stake and what will be demanded of us both defensively and going forward.

“It will be an interesting game between two evenly-matched teams. The players, the fans and the club will give everything to win this.”

David Alaba, Manuel Neuer, James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski are expected to recover from knocks in time to play, but Alphonso Davies and Arjen Robben will definitely miss out.

Bayern shipped four goals against second-division Heidenheim on domestic cup duty on Wednesday and Kovac insists that denying the opposition is a team effort.

“It’s about responsibility and discipline,” he said. “I do not just start with the defenders, it starts earlier. You have to be ready, no matter what your level.

“France have become world champions because they played well but also defended well.

“It is not for nothing that titles are decided at the back. We have to come back to defending well, as individuals and as a team.

“That’s what we have to go back to, but you have to want it even if you’re an artist. It will be an interesting game. The team that makes fewer mistakes will win.”

Dortmund boss Lucien Favre refused to overstate the importance of a fixture that has been billed as the biggest domestic club match in Europe this season.

“This game is very special – Bayern v Dortmund,” he said. “The table is close, seven games remain, and two great teams.

“If we win, nothing is decided, if we draw, nothing is decided, if we lose nothing is decided. It’s completely open!”

Dortmund have injury concerns over Paco Alcacer, Lukasz Piszczek and Abdou Diallo.

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Der Klassiker and Barcelona v Atletico Madrid headline action-packed weekend

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Though the Champions League quarter-finals are a week away, there’s plenty to look forward to in Europe’s top five leagues this weekend as the fixture list has thrown up some cracking games across the continent.

There are two potential title-deciders in Germany and Spain along with fixtures that could have a huge impact on European qualification for next season.

Here are the games to watch from each of Europe’s top five leagues for this weekend.

BUNDESLIGA

Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund

WHERE: Allianz Arena

WHEN: Saturday April 6, 8:30pm GST

The latest staging of Der Klassiker is set to be one of the biggest fixtures in the recent history of the Bundesliga. Bayern Munich have had it all their own way during their run of six straight league titles, rarely having a title challenger worthy of the description.

Not this time. Borussia Dortmund go into this game two points ahead of their rivals, a welcome position to be in after they’d spent the early part of 2019 squandering a seven-point lead over Bayern and even fall behind the Bavarians on goal difference at one stage.

Now, a win in Munich would see Dortmund go home with a five-point cushion, and even a draw would leave them with renewed confidence over their title push. The pressure is entirely on Lucien Favre’s side, because they know a Bayern win would make the one-point lead the champions would take seem like much more. But the Black and Yellow can also take a giant stride to winning a first league title since 2012 by beating Niko Kovac’s resurgent Bayern.

LA LIGA

Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid

WHERE: Camp Nou

WHEN: Saturday, April 6, 10:45pm GST

The title race in Spain is not as close as the one going on in Germany, but Atletico Madrid can change that this weekend. They travel to the Camp Nou knowing that a win would cut the gap to Barcelona down to a manageable five points, and a title race that had fizzled out by December would be back on.

Barca did their rivals a favour by dropping points in midweek, though it could have been worse: La Blaugrana went into the 90th minute of Tuesday’s fixture against Villarreal down 4-2, only for Lionel Messi – who else – and Luis Suarez to score twice in injury time and rescue a point.

Still, that was two points gained for Atletico, and picking up another three could give Diego Simeone’s side some momentum and make even the Messi-inspired La Liga leaders seem vulnerable. Barcelona may also have one eye on next week’s Champions League game against Manchester United, and Atletico will punish any lapse in concentration.

SERIE A

Juventus vs Milan

WHERE: Allianz Stadium

WHEN: Saturday, April 6, 8pm GST

There’s no title race to speak of in Serie A, with Juventus well clear at the top, but no meeting between Juve and Milan comes without the tension and drama befitting one of Italy’s fiercest rivalries.

Sadly, there won’t be a duel between two of the league’s top scorers, with Cristiano Ronaldo likely to miss this fixture through injury and allowing Milan’s Krzysztof Piatek to take centre stage and perhaps extend his lead over the Juventus man in the Capocannoniere race as both chase Sampdoria’s Fabio Quagliarella for that particular crown.

Milan have had a dip in form at the worst possible moment, taking just one point from their last three fixtures heading into Saturday’s game to drop out of third place and leave their top-four hopes in peril. They face fifth-place Lazio, who are four points behind with two games in hand, right after this, and with Juventus possibly more focused on next week’s Champions League clash against Ajax, the Rossoneri could use a positive result against Italy’s best team as a springboard for the rest of the season.

PREMIER LEAGUE

Everton vs Arsenal

WHERE: Goodison Park

WHEN: Sunday, April 7, 5:05pm GST

England’s top-four race is just as close as Italy’s, with four teams contesting for two spots as they head into the Premier League run-in. Arsenal look like the favourites among those two teams, with the kindest fixture list remaining, but their poor away form this season makes Sunday’s trip to Everton a tricky prospect.

The Toffees have turned a corner in recent weeks, having beaten Chelsea and then outclassed West Ham last week to boost their claim for a seventh-place finish, with the unofficial “best of the rest” tag and potential Europa League spot that will come with it.

For both teams, this is an opportunity to take advantage of two rivals not playing during the weekend thanks to the FA Cup scheduling; Arsenal’s top-four rivals Tottenham and Manchester United have the weekend off, as do Everton’s close competitors Wolves and Watford, who face each other in the cup semi-final.

LIGUE 1

Stade Reims vs Lille

WHERE: Stade Auguste-Delaune

WHEN: Sunday, April 7, 5pm GST

Lille’s impressive season got its latest boost last weekend as they came back from 2-0 down away from home against Nantes to pick up a vital 3-2 win. That result kept them four points ahead of third-place Lyon in the race to finish second and avoid the qualifying round for next season’s Champions League.

Sunday’s opponents Stade Reims are locked in a European race of their own, currently in sixth place, three points behind St Etienne in fourth and two behind Marseille, who occupy the final Europa League place. Beating out either to get into Europe would be a huge achievement David Guion’s side.

This fixture also has implications on the Ligue 1 title calculations, as Paris Saint-Germain will be confirmed as champions if they win and Lille draw or lose.

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Wonderkids: Sancho bests Messi and Man United target Tielemans is on rise

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An electric Englishman who has surpassed Lionel Messi – in one category at least – and four other hotshots from across three leagues take pride of place in this week’s list.

The aim of column is to shed light on the players, aged 21 or under across Europe’s top five leagues, who aspire to lead the game into a bold new era.

The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Rashford and Ousmane Dembele are sure to regularly pop up but as every week passes, we hope to sift out a few starlets who may have gone unnoticed.

Without further ado, here’s our five picks from last weekend’s action.

Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund) Age: 19

Key stat: 13 assists, more than Messi, after 2-0 win v Wolfsburg

Comparing Sancho with Lionel Messi? Cue a succession of eye rolls, but the England teenager has jumped the Argentine in the queue in one pretty impressive way.

The winger galloped from his own half, skinning Max Arnold, and teed up Paco Alcacer for his second injury-time goal to put down a gallant Wolfsburg for good.

With that he had racked up his 13th assist of the Bundesliga season, pipping Messi – temporarily at least – as the leading provider across the top five leagues.

In what was a difficult game for the Bundesliga leaders, Sancho dealt damage in fits and spurts. Despite this he still mustered four successful dribbles, and was fouled three times.

Youri Tielemans (Leicester) Age: 21

Key stat: 3rd assist in five games in 2-0 win v Bournemouth

Such has been his impact in three short months, Brendan Rodgers is having to field questions over the 21-year-old’s permanent signing from Monaco amid widespread reported interest.

Murmurings of Man United and Tottenham will only continue to grow if Tielemans keeps delivering like he did against Bournemouth.

The Belgium midfielder possesses that rare knack of marrying precision with adventure in his passing, an ability no doubt nurtured through his 250 senior games at club level already.

Andy Robertson can claim to have produced the most gorgeous cross of the weekend for Roberto Firmino, but Tielemans was not far behind with his whipped in wonderball for Jamie Vardy.

The question is which English striker will be the beneficiary next season.

Moise Kean (Juventus) Age: 19

Key stat: 40 mins per Serie A goal after 1-0 win v Empoli

Moise Kean’s inclusion is not just for his 20-minute, match-winning cameo over the weekend, but just what he has managed to achieve on such a short supply of minutes with Juventus.

Italy found out what all the fuss was about following the forward’s first two goals in Azzurri and Bianconeri looks pretty good on him, too.

There was a touch of fortune about his winner against Empoli, his thrashed shot finding the net via a defender, but with that he became the youngest player to score eight goals in Serie A since an 18-year-old Mario Balotelli.

Two goals in his first Juve start against Udinese, and another in his third appearance. One wonders what he could do in the Champions League against Ajax, especially if Cristiano Ronaldo can’t recover in time.

Dwight McNeil (Burnley) Age: 19

Key stat: 1 shot, one goal in 2-0 win v Wolves

England’s surfeit of riches in attacking positions is likely to hinder McNeil’s progression into the spotlight – not that Burnley will mind too much.

The 19-year-old had only made two Premier League starts by the turn of the year, yet he’s doing as much as any January signing could have to keep the Clarets in the big time.

Having scored in what turned out to be a last-gasp loss at Leicester the week before, McNeil made sure the three points were staying at Turf Moor against Wolves with a drilled left-footer just inside the area.

McNeil is nominally a left midfielder but likes to roam, and his relentless work ethic is another reason why Sean Dyche has entrusted him with a key role in the run-in. Having been invited to train with England’s seniors, perhaps Gareth Southgate can envisage a bright future in white, too.

Suat Serdar (Schalke) Age: 21

Key stat: 6 successful dribbles and a goal in 1-0 win v Hannover

Bundesliga basement club Hannover will wonder how on earth they came away from the game with nothing, and if not for Suat Serdar, they undoubtedly wouldn’t have.

He was hardly the conductor of the midfield, attempting 15 passes overall, instead helping shield Schalke from the cacophony Hannover were making, with 62 per cent possession and 15 shots on goal.

The 21-year-old won the ball three times and generally stymied play. But it was his intervention in the 39th minute that saw him steal the show away from the sorry hosts.

Floating into space on the right-hand side of the box, the German watched the offside line diligently before taking on Benjamin Stambouli’s threaded pass and thrashing home.

With that the former Mainz man arrested Schalke’s horrendous run of form and lifted them six points clear of the drop zone, while Hannover are nine away from safety. On such thin margins relegation battles lie.

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