Can Barca defend their UCL crown? 10 big questions for the European season
The international break is almost over and the European domestic leagues return for the crucial stretch. Andy Brassell reviews some burning questions across the continent that will be answered between now and the middle of May.
Can Barcelona become the first club to win successive Champions League titles?
It will take something special to stop them. In any other season, the quarterfinal tie with Atletico Madrid might look devilishly difficult for Barcelona, but since Diego Simeone's team knocked them out at the same stage in 2014 and then snatched La Liga on the final day of the same season at Camp Nou, it has been one-way traffic.
The Catalans have since beaten Atleti six consecutive times in Liga and Copa action, giving the impression that they've simply found them out. Beyond that, only Bayern Munich look truly capable of stopping Luis Enrique's players.
Are Paris Saint-Germain able to find their post-Zlatan identity?
One thing that has been made explicit during this international break is that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will almost certainly not be at Paris Saint-Germain next season; the Sweden captain said he expects his spell at the Parc des Princes to end once his contract expires. It won't be easy to replace him, either, given his monstrous form this season, with 27 goals in just 23 Ligue 1 starts.
Yet the balance of power at the Parc has changed, with Angel Di Maria becoming the team's creative hub rather than everything going through Zlatan. If the Argentina midfielder can maintain his form through the rest of the Champions League campaign, it will clearly point the way to PSG's future.
Is there any way back for Inter and Roberto Mancini in the Champions League race?
Inter's last result before the international break, a 1-1 draw at a Roma side that had won eight in a row leading up to the game, was excellent in isolation. In terms of the bigger picture, though, it did nothing for their ambitions to return to the Champions League, with Radja Nainggolan's equaliser keeping them five points behind Luciano Spalletti & Co.
The next two games against Torino and Frosinone will be crucial for Roberto Mancini as a daunting tie against Napoli then follows. With little wriggle room for further transfer funds without Champions League cash, one wonders how much longer Mancini will be there if Inter fall short.
Can Benfica stave off the challenge of Jorge Jesus' Sporting and make it three in a row?
Mar. 5, 2016. If things stay as they are, it will be known as the day on which the Portuguese Liga turned as Benfica won their first Lisbon derby of the season at the fourth attempt, 1-0 at the Estadio Jose Alvalade to leapfrog Sporting at the summit.
Thanks to Kostas Mitroglou's winner in that game, the Eagles lead by two points with seven games to go, having trailed Sporting and their former coach Jorge Jesus by seven points at the start of December. Many thought the magic left with Jesus when he departed in acrimonious fashion, but a third straight title would be an enormous triumph for his successor, Rui Vitoria.
Which Madrid club will finish runner-up to Barcelona?
If Barca have worked Atleti out, their city rivals Real Madrid certainly haven't. Los Merengues haven't beaten them in a Liga match since 2013, and in February, Atleti became the first team ever to win league fixtures at the Bernabeu in three successive seasons.
Yet even if Atleti appear to have the greater team ethic, one wonders how much they have left in the tank, especially with two exacting encounters with Barca to come in Europe. Simeone's team looked exhausted in the closing stages of their loss at Sporting Gijon last time out, as El Real closed the gap behind their neighbours to just a point.
Will Nabil Fekir's comeback take him into the France squad?
Lyon fans have been counting down the days to Nabil Fekir's comeback, which is now only a week away. The forward, who club legend Bernard Lacombe refers to as "our Messi," will make his comeback from a cruciate knee ligament injury at Montpellier, with six games to make a late run at France's Euro 2016 squad.
It might seem like a long shot, but Didier Deschamps is a big fan, mentioning Fekir on a series of occasions in recent media appearances. A good end to the campaign would enhance Lyon's Champions League challenge and offer Les Bleus the option of a little extra magic in an already versatile squad.
Can Wolfsburg secure a return to the Champions League?
Dieter Hecking's team are making an excellent job of only the second Champions League campaign in club history, with a clement draw in the last 16 leading them through to a titanic quarterfinal clash with Real Madrid.
Even the most optimistic supporter would struggle to see them winning the competition, though, meaning they have some work to do in order to book a return next season. With seven games to go in the Bundesliga, the Wolves are six points behind fourth-placed Schalke. Almost all of their remaining opponents have something to play for, starting with this weekend's rivals Bayer Leverkusen, though at least Julian Draxler has started hitting his best form.
Can Galatasaray find the form to reach Europe and fulfill their European ban?
It's been as bad as title defences get (with apologies to Chelsea). Super Lig champions Galatasaray are a whopping 24 points behind leaders Besiktas, are on to their third coach of the campaign (the unheralded Jan Olde Riekerink) and received a one-year ban from European competition from UEFA in March for repeat breaching of Financial Fair Play limits.
Whoever's in the hot seat next faces a rebuilding job, with big earners like Lukas Podolski needing to be moved on. What would really help is a top-four finish (or a cup win), ensuring that the UEFA ban is served next season rather than being held over to 2017-18.
Will Philip Cocu regret not rotating his PSV Eindhoven lineup more?
PSV's progress under Cocu has driven Frank de Boer and Ajax to distraction. Cocu is not a fan of rotation, though, and it came back to bite him. Just five days after the gruelling Champions League game at Atletico, he made just one change to his XI for the big clash with Ajax.
The Amsterdam club went on to win 2-0 at the Philips Stadion and retake leadership of the Eredivisie from the champions. Cocu's excellent young team now need to attack the final six matches with renewed energy to make up a two-point gap at the top.
Can FK Rostov really "do a Leicester" in Russia's Premier League?
It's not just in England where rank outsiders have a genuine shot of the title. While Russian Premier League title-holders Zenit Saint Petersburg struggle, modest Rostov are just two points behind leaders CSKA Moscow. They recently had a joint share of the lead after beating the capital club 2-0.
Rostov may have no experience of challenging (the club's previous highest finish was sixth in 1998) but their coach does. Kurban Berdyev led Rubin Kazan to surprise title wins in 2008 and 2009. Two of the mainstays from his success in Tatarstan, Christian Noboa and Cesar Navas, are with him, and they could be heavily influential.
Andy Brassell is a freelance European football writer and broadcaster for the BBC, The Independent, ESPN, The Blizzard, Four Four Two, Talksport and others.