Brief distractions from the Ryder Cup; the Weekend Preview.

Rafael van der Vaart could hold the key against Aston Villa this weekend

There is some football on this weekend, you know? The sporting world’s attention may be focussed on Celtic Manor but there are plenty of big games across Europe to keep you flicking between the channels.

Alas, there is also Wigan vs Wolves on Saturday lunch time, but it could be a good game. Maybe. Stranger things have happened; after all Tiger Woods will be sticking with one partner for a weekend. Eh?

Saturday, on the whole, throws up a list of fairly uninspiring Premier League clashes with the highlight coming from White Hart Lane where Spurs take on Aston Villa.

Despite early-season wobbles from both sides, this fixture will more-than-likely still have a big say in who threatens the European places at the end of the season. It also represents a big chance for Gerard Houllier to consolidate his good start at the Villa helm against a Tottenham side who, as Wigan will testify, seem to struggle after Champions League ties. And with a rejuvenated Emile Heskey coming up against a fragile backline, the ex-England striker could finally start to build on his 32 years of potential.

In the other sort-of big game of the day Sunderland host a Manchester United side looking for their first domestic away win of the season. The Black Cats shouldn’t be overlooked in this one and will be in with a great chance of taking the points should Sir Alex Ferguson revert to the 4-4-2 that hasn’t worked as well as desired on the road this season.

Meanwhile, battling Liverpool face a tricky early-season six-pointer against Blackpool at Anfield and Chelsea will collect the first three of their annual six point-total from Arsenal when the sides meet at Stamford Bridge.

In the Championship, Gordon Strachan may find that if his Middlesbrough don’t beat a resurgent Portsmouth, who have scored nine goals in their last two games, he may be out on his ear after finally wearing down the famously tolerant Steve Gibson’s patience.

Much like the golf, things don’t really kick off around Europe until Sunday afternoon.

Valencia against Athletic Bilbao whets the appetite on Saturday night as the table-topping Mestalla outfit will be looking to put a four-point cushion between themselves and the chasing pack with a win.

Heading up that chasing pack, maybe somewhat surprisingly, is Villareal who have recovered well from a shock opening-day defeat to promoted Real Sociedad by winnin their last four games, including a five-goal thriller on Monday night at Malaga.

The goals of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi are propelling the Yellow Submarines at present and with the return of Santi Cazorla things are looking up for the side who only made the Europa League due to financial irregularities at Mallorca.

They welcome Racing Santander to El Madrigal this weekend and have every chance of staying ahead of Barcelona and even taking top spot themselves should Valencia slip up.

It’s mixed news this weekend for Pep Guardiola’s team as they prepare to face Mallorca at the Nou Camp. Lionel Messi should make a return to the starting line-up after an ankle injury but Xavi will be missing from the side after both club and national coaches colluded to hand the influential midfielder a mini-break.

The midfielder, who has played 203 games in three years and has a touch of tendinitis, was left out of Spain’s squad to play Lithuania and Scotland in order to give him a rest ahead of the rigours of the end-of-season trophy charge.

A stuttering Real Madrid, who sit one point behind Villareal and Barca and two behind Valencia, round off the Spanish footballing weekend late on Sunday night when they play a drab Deportivo la Coruna at the Bernabeu.

‘SuperDepor’, who haven’t hit the back of the net since Jose Mourinho was born, won’t offer too much threat to the Madrid rear guard but the real question is will Madrid pose any real threat to theirs?

It’s looking like a case of too many cooks (I think I spelt that right) in the capital as their wealth of talent has contrived to score only nine goals in seven games so far this season as things arelooking less than rosy at Castle Greyskull.

Two teams looking to join the battle at the top meet at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan as Sevilla welcome Atletico Madrid. Gregorio Manzano, who took charge of Los Palanganas on Monday and masterminded a 1-0 win away at Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League, will be hoping to continue his good start by getting one up on his Champions League qualification rivals.

But for all the teams battling it out towards the top of la Liga the most entertaining side is undoubtedly 12th-placed Malaga. The Qatari-backed side have so far lost all of their home matches and won all of their aways having both scored and conceded 11 goals.

This weekend they travel to Almeria who are far more regimented in their results, having drawn their first two games, lost their next two, and won on their last outing away at the goalless Deportivo. Malaga have won their away games, but Almeria’s results come in pairs, what will give this Sunday?

Over to Germany, now, where Mainz 05 are after a Bundesliga record. Should Thomas Tuchel’s side beat Hoffenheim at the Bruchweg on Saturday afternoon then they will match the seven-game winning start set by Bayern Munich and Kaiserslautern.

Fourth-placed Hoffenheim, the 2008/09 Herbstmeisters, are themselves no strangers to flying starts in Germany’s top division and will provide another stern test to Mainz after making themselves very difficult to beat.

The clash may be the headline fixture of round seven but arguably the biggest game of the weekend can be found in deepest Westphalia where high-flying Borussia Dortmund face off against struggling Bayern Munich.

Should Mainz drop their first points of the season then Dortmund would close the lead with a win over Louis van Gaal’s inconsistent champions, who are themselves hoping to bag a much-needed boost. It should be a great game and is not to be missed (except you probably will, because it’s not on TV and the Ryder Cup is, oh well).

Bayer Leverkusen vs Werder Bremen promises to throw up another potentially exciting and open game with goals almost guaranteed. Bremen’s response to their 4-0 humbling by Inter in midweek should be interesting and they are unlikely to sit back, and when Bremen go for it they provide plenty of goals at both ends.

The big tie in Italy this weekend sees Juventus travel to the San Siro to face champions Inter. The Derby d’Italia brings together two sides who really need to put together a winning strak, with Rafael Benitez looking to build on Wednesday’s win after falling to Roma last weekend while Juventus haven’t put two wins together all season.

Samuel Eto’o has reaped the benefits after being liberated of his defensive duties and has scored 11 goals in 10 games so far this term. But Benitez has a selection headache with eight key players, including Julio Cesar, Lucio and Diego Milito, all doubtful for the clash.

Juventus, who have long been involved in a bitter war of words with the Champions over the Calciopoli scandal, played well against Manchester City on Thursday night and don’t have any fresh injury worries. Although they do have some worries ahead of the clash.

“It is a time when fans, with a sense of responsibility so far superior to that of some club directors, support their team in a moment of difficulty without resorting to violence.” Juve president Andrea Agnelli hopes his fans can behave.

Elsewhere, Milan travel to Parma with a fully fit squad after the in-form Zlatan Ibrahimovic shook off the knock he picked up in the 1-1 draw at Ajax while Ronaldinho returns after being rested.

“The ball can’t reach Zlatan Ibrahimovic.” Parma coach Pasquale Marino knows how to stop Milan.

In other ties, Napoli, who clawed back a three-goal deficit away to Steaua Bucharest on Thursday and were superb against Cesena last weekend, take on a resurgent Roma who beat Cluj 2-1 in midweek. Roma will have to be on their guard to keep out Napoli’s Uruguayan striker Edison Cavani who has scored eight goals in his first nine games for the club.

Second-placed Lazio have Mauro Zarate available as they host fourth-placed Brescia at the Stadio Olimpico. The Argentine striker was fined 10,000 euros but not suspended after giving a fascist salute to fans. Those crazy fascists.

Lazio's Mauro Zarate was caught on camera giving a fascist salute while in the stands last week

Just like a famous Royal we end in France this week. Lyon, who find themselves in the relegation zone for the first time in 15 years, travel to Nancy with Brazilian centre half Cris in their ranks for the first time in six weeks. Nancy, as the name may suggest, are somewhat flimsy at home and are without a win on their own turf this season.

And finally this week we discover that table-topping St. Etienne, who travel to Marseille on Saturday night, will spend Friday night in the club’s academy rather than the usual five-star hotels. Since narrowly avoiding relegation last season the Loire club are keen to cut costs as best they can.

Check back Monday for this weekend’s football talking points. Enjoy the football.

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