European leagues roundup March 2021.
As the leading European leagues take a break for the internationals this is their current status, particularly in relation to the respective title races.
In this (hopefully) unique season some things are the same as usual whereas some leagues are experiencing atypical contests.
The latter would apply especially to France, Italy, and to some extent in Spain.
The light blues of Manchester City have not particularly suffered from ‘lockdown blues’.
Mainly because of their expensively and extensively assembled squad in combination with a top-quality coach.
In a particularly attritional campaign City have been able to absorb injuries and spread around their formidable resources to maximal effect.
Unlike, for instance, the champions Liverpool who have endured a run of setbacks.
Culminating in a hard-to-believe sequence of home losses.
Pep Guardiola’s team went into the break with a fourteen-point lead and an excellent goal difference.
Although their local rival United did contrive to beat them in the ‘derby’ that was soon shrugged off.
Nobody would realistically bet against them claiming their fifth EPL title in nine years.
Indeed City could conceivably win an unprecedented quadruple alongside the FA and League Cups as well as (their ‘Holy Grail’) the Champions League.
If we give City the ultimate then it looks likely United and Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester will join them in the UCL next season.
Despite the inevitable gripes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have shown enough, especially going forward, to ensure at least third place.
While the men from the King power, spearheaded by the dynamic Jamie Vardy and the emerging talent of Nigerian Kelechi Iheanacho, might just outperform last season’s late stumble to qualify.
Which would leave the other top places to be between three London teams (Chelsea, Tottenham and David Moyes’ West Ham) with the two Merseyside sides as the outsiders.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, we can say goodbye to Sheffield United, who have sunk like a stone after overperforming last season, and West Brom (notwithstanding Sam Allardyce’s reputation as an escape artist)
Who will join them in the Championship seems to be between Fulham and Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United.
Of those two the Tynesiders have the harder-looking fixtures and if they continue to lack firepower they will be back in the second tier after a four-year break.
Possibly before they visit Craven Cottage on the final day of the league season.
Which could well put a dent in Mike Ashley’s club valuation.
Atletico Madrid have won the La Liga title ten times and just once in the last seventeen years.
That was in 2014 when they finished just ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The outcome then ended with Atleti holding off the Catalans in the final game of the campaign by drawing 1-1 at the Camp Nou.
A look at the league table shows an element of deja vu with Diego Simeone’s team four clear of Barca and six in front of Los Blancos, with a typically moderate goal difference.
This time that Camp Nou visit is a couple of fechas before the season end but it could still be decisive.
Simeone’s team have benefited from slow starts by his main opposition but they have looked less convincing lately going out of the UCL rather tamely to Chelsea.
Never the most expansive of teams under Simeone, Atletico have some testing trips coming up to Euro-challengers Sevilla, Betis and Athletic.
However, they could benefit from a stalemate in the upcoming El Clasico.
But many would expect this title race to tighten up as we move into April and May.
Whether the recent pattern of edging games can somehow get the team from the Wanda over the line is thus open to doubt.
If they can it will be another triumph for their passionate Argentinian coach in his eleventh season with his beloved club.
Outside of the summit the regular Euro qualifiers, Sevilla could be joined by their neighbours Betis or Real Sociedad or current Europa League participants Villarreal.
Pandemic or not some things don’t change.
And that is in Germany where the machine that is Bayern Munich continues to dominate.
They are on course for a record 31st shield and a ninth in succession.
Though not quite as consistent as in the past FC Hollywood are four clear of RB Leipzig and one of the favourites to retain their UCL title.
Able to call on assist-kings Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich as well as goal-scorer par excellence Robert Lewandowski few would bet against Bayern coming out on top as usual.
Their formula delivers, this time with Hansi Flick as coach.
Outside of the top two, there could be a place in Europe for the cultish Union Berlin alongside the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Bundesliga is the sad sight of the traditionally very well supported Schalke 04 languishing in last place and having won just one league game all season.
They are likely to be replaced by Bochum and SV Hamburg who currently top the second tier Bundesliga.
It is looking increasingly unlikely that Juventus will be celebrating their tenth successive Scudetto this season.
After a long period of dominance, the ‘Old Lady’ have stumbled in Serie A and also, surprisingly, gone out of the Champions League at the hands of Porto.
Now under the guidance of the peerless midfielder Andrea Pirlo, they are some ten points adrift of Inter with eleven games remaining.
The champions will return to action against their city rivals Torino while they will encounter both Milan clubs during May.
But it will take a minor miracle for them to overcome the odds.
Meanwhile, the league leaders Inter could have already clinched the title before they visit the Juventus Arena on May 16th.
Antonio Conte’s side have won 20 of 27 league matches, including the last eight in succession, and should complete their first such title triumph since 2010.
Inspired by the front two of Argentinian Lautaro Martinez and Belgian Romelu Lukaku the Nerazzurri can field an array of other talent (Barella, Hakimi, Skriniar, and Bastoni) plus experience (Eriksen, Vidal, Brozovic, and Alexis Sanchez)
And they have the guidance of a coach familiar with winning titles both as a player and as a manager.
Perhaps only their city rivals AC can now stop them.
However, that looks unlikely particularly after they lost the Derby Della Madonnina 3-0 in San Siro.
So with a very experienced coach, a potent strikeforce and no European distractions, Inter should collect the Scudetto (probably sadly without fans in their stadium) in May.
And lastly we come to what could be the tightest title race of all.
As three teams, and possibly four if you count Monaco, are currently vying for the crown.
At one point some predicted the almost unthinkable - that PSG would not finish on top.
The Parisians have won every season since 2013, apart from one time when Monaco interrupted their grip.
They exude power, being financed by Qatar Sports Investments.
But it might be that their ambitions in the Champions League, where they are again bidding for that elusive triumph, have distracted from their domestic focus.
Which has opened the door for Lyon and Lille to provide a challenge.
Under the long-term ownership of Jean-Michel Aulas (and with some Chinese investment) OL have visions of reviving their title dominance of the 2000’s when they secured all their seven such victories.
Coach Rudi Garcia can put together a lineup including the coveted Houssem Aouar and Rayan Cherki as well as the revitalised ex-Manchester United forward Memphis Depay,
Plus other African talent in Islam Slimani, Tino Kadewere and Karl-Toko Ekambi.
Not quite at the PSG level, Lyon are still well up in the ‘Money League’.
Lille are also in there battling, as they aim for their fourth title overall and their second in nearly 70 years.
Christophe Galtier’s team doesn’t have either the pedigree or the resources of the others but, so far, they have kept pace.
Helped by their assist-king Jonathan Bamba plus Canadian Jonathan David, Renato Sanches from Portugal, and a solid defensive setup (they have the fewest goals against in Ligue 1) the Northerners will face their ultimate tests in April.
When they visit both PSG and Lyon.
It will probably be too much for them.
Having beaten Lyon just before the international pause PSG will be fancied to do the same against Lille after which they meet Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the UCL.
Assuming they negotiate those tests without significant injuries the Parisians should still have enough to hold off the challengers.
Any team with Mbappe, Neymar, and Di Maria in attack surely must win the title.
But any setbacks could be leapt on, especially by OL.
In going far in the ‘Holy Grail’ of the Champions League PSG might sacrifice the Ligue 1 crown.
Either way, for the neutrals it should be a far more exciting watch than usual.
Analysis - John Bethell.