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THE FINISH LINE

A football feast to savour

Manchester City vs Chelsea, Barcelona vs Real Madrid are the top picks of this weekend's fixtures
Saturday, December 3, 2016 - 05:50

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It will be fascinating to see if City’s lethal striker Sergio Aguero can add to his tally of 16 goals in all competitions by breaching the joint-meanest defence in the EPL.

THE weekend has barely started but I know exactly where I'll be on Saturday night after dinner: at home on the living room couch, getting ready to savour two of the biggest football matches on the sporting calendar.

First up is the tantalising clash between two of the richest clubs in England. In one corner there's Manchester City, the team owned by Sheikh Mansour, a man with an estimated individual net worth of at least £17 billion (S$30.5 billion). At the other end, you have Chelsea, the London-based club that boasts Roman Abramovich as its owner. According to Forbes, his net worth in 2015 was US$8.3 billion, making him the 12th richest person in Russia and the 137th richest person in the world.

They say money can't buy success, but both Manchester City and Chelsea have been bucking that trend for the last decade or so as they reeled in one trophy after another.

The Citizens won the English Premier League in 2012 (their first league title after 34 years) and again in 2014. They also clinched the FA Cup in 2011 and the League Cup twice (2014 and 2016).

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Chelsea have scooped up a host of honours since Abramovich took charge: four EPL championships from 2005 to 2015, four FA Cups, and three League Cup crowns. When these two cash-rich clubs lock horns at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday (kickoff: 8.30pm, Singapore time), you can expect nothing less than an intense, full-blooded battle.

Chelsea, the current EPL leaders, take a seven-match winning streak going into this fixture. Only one point separates the two sides, with Chelsea on 31 and third-placed City on 30. So there's precious little room for error on the pitch.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has slowly but surely groomed his squad into a genuine title contender. The Blues don't have any European competition to deal with this season, so all their energies are focused on winning the league title.

The statistics say it all. Chelsea are 17 points better off than they were at the same stage last season in the final days of Jose Mourinho's reign.

City have also improved vastly under their new manager Pep Guardiola. They have four more points than what former boss Manuel Pellegrini managed after 13 games of the season.

It will be fascinating to see if City's lethal striker Sergio Aguero can add to his tally of 16 goals in all competitions by breaching the joint-meanest defence in the EPL.

The goal that Tottenham Hotspur scored in their defeat at Stamford Bridge last Saturday was the only one that Chelsea have conceded in their seven-match winning sequence.

Aguero, the Argentinian, will hope to repeat his heroics from last season when he scored four against Chelsea, including a hat-trick during their last meeting in April this year.

Chelsea, of course, have a whole host of players who can score goals, none more so than the in-form Diego Costa, the Spanish striker who already has 10 goals to his name.

This will be the first meeting of Guardiola and Conte as managers, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will both want to kick-start their managerial duel on a winning note.

Barely an hour after the final whistle at the Etihad Stadium is blown, it will be time to switch channels and feast on the famous match known as El Classico (11.15pm, Singapore time).

One of the biggest matches in club football is expected to attract a global TV audience of 650 million people, according to figures released by La Liga.

This is the 232nd competitive meeting between fierce Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid - and what a tantalising clash this promises to be at the imposing 99,000-seater Nou Camp stadium.

That's the same venue of the last game between these two sides in April when 10-man Real Madrid came from a goal down to triumph 2-1, ending Barcelona's proud 39-match unbeaten record in the process.

That result, however, was not enough to prevent Barcelona from winning the La Liga championship the following month with 91 points as Real finished second, just one point behind.

All eyes will be on Barcelona as the team is mired in a wretched run of form at the moment. Manager Luis Enrique watched in agony as his players racked up a third draw in four games on Wednesday, a 1-1 stalemate against Hercules in the King's Cup.

The Catalans (Barcelona's nickname) are also falling off the pace in the league; they are in third position and six points behind Real Madrid.

Losing to Real again would mean Barcelona falling nine points off the pace - a gap that might prove too massive and demoralising even for their star-studded squad to overcome.

In recent seasons, the El Classico has been headlined by the ongoing rivalry between Real's Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona's Lionel Messi, the two superstars that often tussle for Fifa's annual Player of the Year award.

But that has since been expanded to a battle of the two club's attacking trios: Real's "BBC" (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo) and Barcelona's "MSN" (Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar).

Only one of them won't be playing for sure on Saturday, and that is the Welsh winger Bale, who injured his ankle in the win over Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League last week.

His absence aside, there won't be any lack of motivation for Real to notch another victory over their arch-enemy and effectively toss Barcelona out of the title race.

What tilts the scales slightly in Real's favour is the fact that they have not tasted defeat in any competition for nearly eight months, and Zidane is aware that he's just two games away from equalling the club's record of going 34 games unbeaten.

The final results in Manchester and Barcelona, whatever they may be, will go a long way towards determining which teams take home the EPL and La Liga trophies.

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