What do Hibs, Montpellier and Blackburn all have in common? No, it’s not that their fans have been spending an inordinate amount of time in the toilet recently. It’s that they’re part of today’s three to watch:
1) Scottish Premier League: Hibernian vs. Dunfermline Athletic, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
It is a testament to how abysmal Hibs have been this season that Dunfermline, the worst side to ‘grace’ the SPL in many a year, can still mathematically leapfrog the once-proud Edinburgh outfit and send them spiralling into the eternal black hole that is the Scottish First Division. Worryingly for fans of the home team, the Pars’ form has improved since Jim Jefferies – a legend at city rivals Hearts – took over, and a win at Easter Road would see them close the gap on their feckless opponents to two points with one game to play. Should the worst case scenario materialise for Hibs, their ensuing Scottish Cup final encounter with Hearts would take on a whole new complexion, providing those of a maroon persuasion with a brand new set of lusty, schadenfreude-inspired songs for the occasion. For Hibs, who rather famously haven’t won the Cup since 1902, it would be a bit like finally getting a date with the busty blonde in marketing, only to discover as you walked through the door of the cheesy wine bar that you’d left your wallet in the taxi…
2) Ligue 1: Rennes vs. Montpellier, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST
Fans of cursed, middle-of-the-road, trophy-less sides across Europe will be stealing occasional sympathetic glances at the Ligue 1 scores this evening, as Montpellier strive to prove that a cursed, middle-of-the-road, trophy-less side can, with the right set of players, a lot of bottle and a large dose of luck, occasionally have a day in the sun. Said bottle will never be put to the test more stringently than at Rennes, where defeat will leave away fans facing the prospect of their team chucking the league away when, just a fortnight ago, it seemed like destiny was finally grinning down inanely at them. Billionaires’ playthings PSG, top on goal difference but having played a game more, and defending champions Lille (remarkably) simply refuse to go away, which means that the Languedoc-Roussillon club need at least a point to go into their last two fixtures as league leaders. Red cards, a 95th-minute missed penalty, on-pitch brawls, squad disharmony, controversial statements to the press and a decimated midfield have conspired to turn this into a rather tumultuous week for Montpellier, who can put all that behind them with a victory over Rennes, who are still in the hunt for a European place. All in all, it promises to be a belter in Brittany.
3) English Premier League: Blackburn Rovers vs. Wigan Athletic, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST
You’ve got to feel for Blackburn and their ever-optimistic manager, Steve Kean. You’d think that Wigan would be exactly the team they’d want to face in this position: direct relegation rivals, with just six points presently separating the two sides. A football-loving Martian landing on Earth today would probably agree. But that would be because he hadn’t got his seven pairs of hands on the Latics’ recent results, which would give the likes of Real Madrid pause for thought before taking them on. In the past few weeks, Shaun Maloney and Co. have beaten Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle, taking 15 points from a possible 21. A win at Rovers will seal Wigan’s place in the Premier League for next season, and it would be a foolish punter who would bet against them on current form.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, they say. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, they say (although Pep Guardiola appears to have misread that one…it is a tad ambiguous, to be fair). Or they may badly misquote Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or Al Pacino’s Tony D’Amato. Unusually for a Friday, there is a lot at stake in all of today’s chosen games, which should please that mysterious ‘they’. If you prefer your football desperate, intense and gut-wrenching, now’s the time to put your feet up with a six-pack, and act in exactly the opposite way as those preceding adjectives.
1) Ligue 1: Toulouse vs. Montpellier, 19.00 CET/13.00 EST
There are five matchdays left in France. Montpellier, surprise leaders, are on a quest for their first-ever French league title, but their fans are feeling the heat as moneybags PSG mercilessly hunt them down. Toulouse are having a great season, are on cracking form (as demonstrated by their thwacking of Lyon last week) and can still qualify for the Europa League. A couple of days after Chelsea somehow knocked out Barcelona, and Bayern and Real showed the world how not to take penalties, could this game prove to be the outstanding fixture of the week?
2) Belgian Pro League, play-offs: Racing Genk vs. Anderlecht, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST
It’s officially squeaky bum time in Belgium. Anderlecht hold a four-point lead over Club Brugge as the much-maligned play-off system draws to a close, but a loss to a rejunenated Genk side would give their closest challengers the chance to cut it to one on Saturday, and invite today’s opponents back into the race. The supposedly all-important psychological advantage goes to Thomas Buffel and Co., who have already spanked their Brussels-based adversaries 3-1 away from home. A repeat of that result would see cats leaping unannounced into gatherings of unsuspecting pigeons all over Belgium.
3) Portuguese Primeira Liga: Sporting Braga vs. Olhanense, 21.15 CET/15.15 EST
Braga have never won the league. And let’s face it, it’s not an easy task, what with Benfica, Sporting and Porto peskily snapping up 97.4% of the available titles since the formation of the Portuguese championship (sadly, that’s a real stat). In the last few years, they have attempted to gatecrash this private three-team party, finishing 2nd in the table and notably reaching the Europa League final last year. Recent slip-ups have probably ruined their chances of lifting the trophy this year, so they must concentrate on the next best thing, second place and the Champions League spot that comes with it. Defeating a useful Olhanense outfit is about as must-win as they come for Braga this season, especially if they want to be known for something other than having quite simply the coolest stadium on the planet.