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League races make decisions easy for Champions League coaches

Mar 30, 2013, 8:32 AM EDT

Real Madrid's Portuguese coach Jose Mour

When Galatasaray take the field tonight for today’s derby against Istanbul BB, Fatih Terim’s will have to wrestle with one of the default dilemmas of European success. With key players just returning from the March international break, it’s tempting to rest them ahead of important mid-week matches, with the first legs of Champions League’s quarterfinals taking place Tuesday and Wednesday. Yet late in campaigns with domestic honors and Champions League spots at stake, managers must often decide whether to push players through their congested schedules or sacrifice one goal for another.

Gala has led the Turkish Süper Lig for most of the year, but headed into the 27th of 34 rounds, they’re only four points up on rival Fenerbahçe. While Fener looks a safe bet for three points from 17th place Akhisar Belediye on Sunday, Terim’s team gets a crosstown rival that hasn’t lost in five. Any Gala stumble could allow Fener to reclaim the title when Fenerbahçe hosts the season’s final derby on May 11.

So does Terim put his full team out against Istanbul in an attempt to keep Fener at arm’s length? Or does he pursue Champions League glory in a low-percentage play against Real Madrid, implicitly better his team can either recover by Wednesday (if he pushes his starters) or reclaim any points lost by choosing reserves on Saturday?

This time of year, managers are typically forced to embrace that balancing act, though this season is a little different – perhaps disappointingly so. League titles are all but decided in Germany, Italy and Spain, and the good teams chasing those league’s leaders are often safely clear of a fight for Champions League qualification. As a result, few teams actually face any risk today should they rest their starters.

Bayern Munich and Juventus play one of Tuesday’s two matches, but neither of their coaches will leave their teams exposed should they sit their best players. Juventus are nine points clear of second place Napoli in Itay’s Serie A, and while their trip to Inter is one of the higher profile games on the domestic calendar (the Derby d’Italia), Antonio Conte would be justified to rest his more aged legs ahead of Tuesday’s visit from Bayern. As for München, they are 20 points clear of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, so while a visit from Hamburg is usually a marquee match, Jupp Heynckes can lean on his squad’s depth on Saturday (and for the rest of the season, for that matter).

Also on Tuesday, Barcelona visits Paris Saint-Germain, who came into the weekend with a five-point lead on second place Lyon in France. The Parisians were given a Friday fixture by the FFF, allowing them an extra day’s rest ahead of Barça’s arrival. That helped Carlo Ancelotti play an almost entirely first-choice side against defending champion Montepellier, with a late goal from Kevin Gameiro extending PSG’s lead to eight points.

Barcelona may not be as eager to put their top talent in harm’s way. With a 13-point lead in Spain, Barça face few risks should they pick a second-choice side today at Celta de Vigo.

Real Madrid also play Saturday, facing Real Zaragoza ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Galatasaray. With the league title out of reach, they’re playing for little more than domestic pride. Thirteen points out of first and 14 points into a Champions League spot, El Real’s place in the Primera standings gives José Mourinho every reason to be cynically pragmatic.

Lower down the table, Málaga also have nothing to play for, though for far different reasons. The Andalusians have been banned from next year’s European competitions for failing to pay wages, tax bills, and other fees. Currently sixth in Spain, Manuel Pellegrini’s team has had all of their eggs put into one basket, whether they like it or not. They have little incentive to risk anybody today at Rayo Vallecano.

Then there’s Borussia Dortmund, a contender for this year’s title who may receive a perverse benefit from no longer being about to contest their Bundesliga crown. With players like Kevin Großkreutz, Nuri Sahin, and Felipe Santana in reserve, Jurgen Klopp’s side has the depth to compete on multiple fronts, but thanks to their 20-point deficit in Germany, they can keep that powder dry as they pursue a second Champions League title.

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