Europe's top leagues provide an embarrassment of riches in this weekend's fixture list as the big guns do battle
It is not often that El Clásico has to fight for its status as the most glamorous fixture in Europe, but then this is no ordinary weekend on the continent because battling Barcelona and Real Madrid for top billing on Sunday are the Milan derby and a huge match at the top of Ligue 1 between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain. There have been worse support acts, although because all three matches overlap each other there is one dilemma: trying to find the time to watch them.
Everywhere you look, there are intriguing subplots, whether it be the clash of old and new money in France, or how the Milanese sides will cope against each other on a wretched San Siro pitch, where both have suffered this season. Given that Internazionale and Milan have both lost two of their first three league matches at home, with much of the blame for their poor form laid upon the state of the pitch, there will not be too many people brave enough to predict a winner.
However, Inter are the favourites and not just because Milan are the nominal home side. While there is growing optimism at Inter, these are troubled times for Milan, who will at least come into the game boosted by an impressive win at Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League on Wednesday. They languish in 11th place in Serie A, and Massimiliano Allegri's job will be hanging by a thread if Milan lose to Inter, who have been lifted to third by Andrea Stramaccioni. The last two years have been volatile for them, an inevitable consequence of the José Mourinho hangover, but a semblance of order has been restored under the 36-year-old.
Milan's misery is largely a consequence of selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG in the summer. It is also a signal of the growing threat from France, for so long in the shadow of England, Italy, Germany and Spain. Ibrahimovic and Silva were not the only players to head for Paris in the summer, with Ezequiel Lavezzi also arriving from Napoli and, after a stuttering start, Carlo Ancelotti's side are closing on Marseille, whom they trail by three points.
Marseille won their first six matches but were thrashed 4-1 at Valenciennes last Sunday. Their form has been a surprise. They struggled last season and then lost their manager, Didier Deschamps, to France, before replacing him with Elie Baup. Whether they can hold off PSG remains to be seen. Ancelotti's team, after starting their season with three successive draws, have won their past four matches convincingly.
No English players will feature in any of the three games on Sunday – Marseille's Joey Barton is still suspended in the league – but Chris Waddle and Joe Jordan believe the benefits of playing abroad are substantial. Waddle played some of the best football of his career during his three years at Marseille, reaching the European Cup final in 1991, and is adamant that the England team would improve if the players were exposed to different football cultures.
"Unfortunately the Premier League generates a lot of cash so players don't want to go abroad," says Waddle, who is a pundit for ESPN. "They have everything they want here. I'd like to see them go abroad. I think it educates you about the game.
"The Premier League's like basketball. When I went to France, it became very tactical and technical. Marseille were probably a little bit different. We did try to win everything three, four or 5-0, but a lot of clubs, if they were 2-0 down, they'd put 10 behind the ball and look at goal difference. Try and keep it at two, not get a goal back like they do in England. I think from a player's point of view, they would learn so much more about the game."
Jordan, who spent three years in Italy in the early 80s, first with Milan and then Verona, concurs. "From a professional and personal point of view ,it was the best move of my career," he says. "I learned about the preparation for the game and the way they looked at football. It was a lot more demanding. Three or four of us would get in the car to training and we would be away for the whole day. It was an intense day.
"But it was a terrific way to live. When I had a day off at Verona, I could take the kids in the car to Venice. At Milan, I could be at the ski slopes within an hour or lake Como in 50 minutes. It was the perfect Monday off.
"Even now young players would benefit, but it isn't going to happen. That is a shame. Because players who have gone there get to see another side of the game. Somebody different putting their ideas across. If the money was the same over there as it is here, they should go."
At the very least, they should tune in on Sunday night. It promises to be a treat.
This Sunday ESPN has televised coverage of Milan v Internazionale at 7.15pm and Marseille v PSG at 10.30pm. Visit espn.co.uk/tv for details
More on El Clásico to come on the site later today