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The 8 big stories to look out for in football this weekend

Robin van Persie Feyenoord

Van Persie on his last mission

History was made in the Netherlands last week as Feyenoord lost a game in which Robin van Persie had scored for the first time. The veteran was on target at PEC Zwolle, but the favourites succumbed to a deserved 3-1 defeat and their already-slim hopes of winning the title have now disappeared completely.

Van Persie returned to his beloved club a year ago, hoping to follow Dirk Kuyt's footsteps – the Liverpool legend won the Eredivisie title in his farewell season of 2016/17. Those dreams will remain unfulfilled, but more history could still be made on Sunday.

Feyenoord host Ajax, against whom Van Persie has never won an Eredivisie game before. This is his last chance before retirement in the summer, and the Amsterdam side’s defence looked shaky in their thrilling 4-4 draw against Heerenveen. One last go…

Gregory's rollercoaster continues

The Indian Super League is back after the winter break, and John Gregory hopes for a positive start to 2019. The 64-year-old former Aston Villa boss, who worked in Israel and Kazakhstan before his Crawley Town adventure, arrived to India in 2017 and led Chennaiyin to championship triumph.

This season isn’t so rosy: the Marina Machans are rock bottom with five points after 12 matches, and still looking for their first home win. On Saturday they travel to play-off hopefuls NorthEast United, whose technical advisor is Avram Grant.

Crucial six-pointer for Cesc

When Cesc Fabregas signed a three-and-a-half-year contract at Monaco, it was obvious that the former Arsenal and Chelsea legend was confident his new team would stay up in spite of their problems.

His mood may have changed after Monaco were thrashed 5-1 by Strasbourg on his home debut, and now the Spaniard knows how difficult his task really is – not least after the man who signed him, Thierry Henry, has effectively been sacked after a demoralising start to his managerial career. 

Reuniting with close friend and mentor Henry was partly an emotional decision, and it would be even more of a bitter blow for Fabregas if Monaco went down. Right now they seriously need his leadership – before getting the boot, Henry had banished a string of first-team players he perceived to have poor attitudes. "At some point, you need guys who want to save the club, who don't think about themselves," said the Frenchman.

The massive six-pointer at fellow strugglers Dijon will be a cracker, and offers Fabregas his best chance yet to make a telling contribution.

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Robinho in the spotlight again

Milan won't be champions, Real Madrid are very unlikely to finish at the top and Manchester City could be left empty-handed too. But Robinho might yet be celebrating a title at the age of 34.

The forgotten Brazilian, who made a surprising move to Sivasspor a year ago, was so impressive that Turkish leaders Istanbul Basaksehir signed him this month. Robinho duly provided an assist for supreme goal-getter Gael Clichy on his debut, in a thrilling 4-2 top-of-the-table clash at Trabzonspor.

On Monday he will play at home for the first time against high-scoring rivals Kasimpasa, currently fourth in the Super Lig.

Spain’s finest defences clash

News just in: Atletico Madrid are horrible swines to beat under Diego Simeone. El Cholo is still the ultimate master of defensive organisation, and this season is no different – Los Colchoneros have only conceded 13 goals in 20 La Liga matches.

However, you might be surprised to learn that the second-best defensive record in Spain belongs to Getafe. The modest outfit from a southern suburb of Madrid have only leaked 16 goals this term, after 33 in the whole of 2017/18.

That means in total, Getafe have only allowed 49 goals against them in 58 league fixtures since the start of last term. By comparison, Barcelona have shipped 50; Real Madrid 68; and Sevilla 80. And that isn’t down to a single world-class goalkeeper either: Vicente Guaita was in top form last season, but is now at Crystal Palace. David Soria took his place seamlessly.

Such a record is incredible given the club's meagre resources, and coach Jose Bordalas has quickly made his name as an unsung genius (well, not that unsung). The game between Atletico and Getafe on Saturday might not be the prettiest affair imaginable, therefore, but it's a superb fight of two outstanding coaching minds.  

Zapata aims to continue amazing run

At the beginning of December, Colombian Duvan Zapata only had one Serie A goal to his name this season. Fast-forward less than two months, and the centre-forward has 14 – putting him level at the top of the scoring charts with Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Quagliarella.

Netting 13 times in seven fixtures is an outstanding feat, and he became the first Atalanta player to score four in a single fixture since 1952 in their 5-0 rout of Frosinone last week.

The 27-year-old Sampdoria loanee is suddenly attracting interest from other top clubs: Roma are keen to sign him during the current transfer window despite already having Edin Dzeko and Patrick Schick, and in greater need of defensive reinforcements. Perhaps they’re still horrified by how Zapata terrorised them in August’s 3-3 draw at the Stadio Olimpico.

On Sunday, Atalanta go to Bergamo – and Zapata is keen on continuing his historic run of form.

Hart’s miserable reunion

Why did Burnley sign Joe Hart when they already had four other goalkeepers, including Tom Heaton and Nick Pope? Without wanting to disrespect the former England man, both rivals are more reliable and the Clarets could surely have negotiated their early-season injury crisis without the need for a third Three Lions international.

The reality has proved that the doubters were right. With Hart between the posts, Burnley sank into the relegation zone. As soon as he was benched after the 5-1 thrashing at home to Everton, Sean Dyche's side became stable again – although there is, of course, more to it than that. Nevertheless, the Clarets are unbeaten in January having conceded just twice in five fixtures, and face Manchester City in the FA Cup on Saturday with their confidence intact.

Burnley were humiliated 5-0 in their October Premier League meeting, but now look better equipped to avoid a repeat. Hart will likely be watching on from the bench once again as his side try to get a result.

Another emotional return for Badstuber

Badstuber was supposed to enjoy a long and prosperous career at Bayern Munich, after a magnificent debut season under Louis van Gaal in 2009/10.

The Dutchman famously nurtured two academy graduates at the club: Thomas Muller went on to become a superstar, but Badstuber's rise was cruelly ended by devastating knee injuries. The dream turned into a nightmare, and ultimately the elegant stopper wasn't able to fulfil his outstanding potential.

Bayern had to let him go in 2017, but amusingly he is yet to be defeated on his returns to Allianz Arena since.

Badstuber helped earn a 1-1 draw against his beloved club on loan at Schalke in February 2017; then in May 2018, he was given a belated send-off when Stuttgart visited Munich on the last matchday of the season – and came away with a sensational 4-1 win.

Badstuber returns to Bayern again on Sunday, although his place in the starting lineup is uncertain following another injury. Can struggling Stuttgart stun the giants once more?

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