A look at what’s happening in European soccer on Sunday:
Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea — the top three in the Premier League — all face away games to complete a truncated round because of COVID-19 outbreaks in many squads. City, which plays Newcastle, is a point clear of Liverpool, which is at Tottenham. Chelsea is a further three points back and visits Wolverhampton. Six matches have been postponed in this round amid rising cases of the coronavirus at clubs, reflecting the worsening health emergency in Britain as the omicron variant spreads. City manager Pep Guardiola is in the fortunate position of being able to report an almost fully fit squad, with the injured Ferran Torres the only absentee. Chelsea is heavily depleted — especially up front and in midfield — because of COVID-19 absences and injuries but might be able to call upon N'Golo Kante. The France midfielder has not played since Nov. 23 because of injury.
The virus that has infected several Real Madrid players has given Eden Hazard a rare chance to play for the Spanish leader. Carlo Ancelotti says Hazard will start against Cádiz, after Luka Modric, Marcelo, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Rodrygo, and Andriy Lunin tested positive for the coronavirus this week. Hazard, who cost Madrid more than 100 million euros in 2019, was an unused substitute for the last three league matches. Spanish media speculates the club may look to sell him. Third-placed Real Betis aims for a fourth consecutive league win when it visits Athletic Bilbao. Manuel Pellegrini’s Betis will be without key playmaker Nabil Fekir because of injury. Getafe plays Osasuna hoping to bounce back from its embarrassing exit from the Copa del Rey when it was routed 5-0 by third-tier club Atlético Baleares. Mallorca visits Granada with both sides unbeaten in their last three league games.
AC Milan and Napoli are decimated by injuries ahead of their top-of-the-table clash at San Siro. There are just three points separating second-placed Milan from fourth-placed Napoli, and the Rossoneri can move to within one point of defending champion Inter Milan with a win. Napoli has struggled of late and makes the trip north having lost back-to-back league matches. It has won just one of its last six Serie A games. Fiorentina will be hoping for a slipup from Napoli as it can move to within three points of fourth place and the final Champions League berth with a win at home to Sassuolo. At the other end of the table, Spezia and Venezia will be hoping for positive results against Empoli and Sampdoria respectively to move away from the drop zone. Also, Torino hosts Hellas Verona.
Bayer Leverkusen visits Freiburg hoping to right some wrongs and perhaps even take some lessons from the home team. Leverkusen is third in the Bundesliga but already 15 points behind halfway stage leader Bayern Munich after letting five points slip in its last two games. Leverkusen was 2-0 up against Eintracht Frankfurt before it lost 5-2, then led 2-0 against Hoffenheim before drawing 2-2. Freiburg cannot boast the same resources as the club founded by the Bayer pharmaceutical company, but it’s only two points behind after impressing again this season under Christian Streich, the longest serving coach in the league. Also, Cologne hosts Stuttgart to close out the last round before the league’s winter break.
In the last 64 of the French Cup, defending champion Paris Saint-Germain visits fifth-division side Feignies Aulnoye. PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino will hope to avoid injuries by resting key players and starting fringe players. Runner-up Monaco visits third-division side Red Star, one of the oldest French clubs and a five-time French Cup winner. A few days after replacing Claude Puel, Pascal Dupraz will make his debut as Saint-Etienne coach against fourth-division side Lyon La Duchere. Saint-Etienne supporters are banned from attending the game as the Rhone prefect fears potential violence because of the regional rivalry between Lyon and Saint-Etienne. Marseille will have high ambitions in the cup competition when it hosts fifth-division team Le Cannet Rocheville.
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The Associated Press