Staff writer Seb Brooks looks at the state of Europe's top leagues, and how this is the year the title races are finally heating up.
It has been widely documented for a few years now that European leagues have become predictable. These domestic competitions have seen the same winners year in, year out. In the cases of France, Spain and Italy, this could not be more true. In France, since being taken over by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, Paris Saint-Germain have won the title in seven out of the last nine seasons. This financial backing has allowed them to sign stars including Neymar and Mbappe, and has tilted the balance of power in the division. In Spain, since Rafa Benitez lead Valencia to a famous title in 2004, only once in the last sixteen seasons has a team outside the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid won the championship, that being Atletico Madrid in 2013-14 under current manager Diego Simeone. And finally, in Italy, Juventus have of course won nine consecutive titles, stretching over virtually the entire preceding decade. Such dominance among the top clubs in these respective leagues have led to calls for a European Super League. The argument is simple: what now is the purpose of these competitions, if they are, in all but name, closed shops? Yet, in answer to that question, perhaps this season could be different. Heading into the final few months of the campaign, the serial winners in these countries are attempting to catch up to the league leaders, rather than building a lead above them. It certainly raises the possibility that there could be some surprises in store when the season finishes in May.
As mentioned previously, Paris Saint-Germain have long been the dominant team in France, and were clear favourites to win another title again this season despite captain Thiago Silva leaving in pre-season, since they still possess an array of talent including Navas in goal, Marquinhos in defence, and Mbappe and Neymar up top. Despite a rocky start, losing their opening two games, they recovered well, winning their next eight games in a row and setting the early pace at the top. However, they have since lacked consistency. They lost away at Monaco following a dramatic second half comeback inspired by Cesc Fabregas, and recently at Lorient. Defeat to Lyon at home in December also saw them lose top spot, which they are yet to regain. Added to this, Thomas Tuchel was sacked and replaced by Mauricio Pochettino. Despite not winning a trophy, the Argentine enjoyed a successful spell at Tottenham, consistently finishing in the Premier League top four. Although it was an exciting appointment for sure, it was still a questionable decision to sack Tuchel after he had just led PSG to the Champions League final. Sacking a manager also means that the incoming manager needs time to imprint his philosophy, and Pochettino is still working out how to get the best out of this squad. They currently sit third in the table, three points behind leaders Lille and one point behind second placed Lyon. With fourteen games left there is all to play for, yes, but with their rivals in good form, PSG will need to perform well to retain the championship. In recent years there has not been much competition in France, but that has changed this season.
Despite selling key players Victor Osimhen to Napoli and Gabriel to Arsenal in the summer, coach Christophe Galtier has got this Lille team playing well. They’re on a six-match winning streak, and hold the second best defensive record in the league with twelve clean sheets up to now. It is a well structured side: Maignan is consistent in goal; captain Jose Fonte leads the back four well; Renato Sanches and Xeka possess quality in the middle, along with Bamba and Ikone out wide; and they have a number of different goalscorers. Summer signings Jonathan David and Burak Yilmaz have contributed with sixteen goals between them this season, and Yusuf Yazici has scored thirteen of his own, and was awarded the league Player of the Month for December. Lyon are also a threat to PSG. Coach Rudi Garcia led the team to a Champions League semi-final last season, beating Juventus and Manchester City in the process. This is a dynamic young squad, with creative midfielder Houssem Aouar and striker Memphis Depay notable talents, and both have attracted the interest of top European clubs. Lucas Paqueta and Karl Toko Ekambi have also been valuable signings, with Paqueta supporting Aouar and Toko Ekambi scoring nine league goals so far, out on the wing. Tino Kadewere has chipped in with the same number of goals from the other wing, giving this Lyon team extra firepower. They had a poor start, winning only one out of their first six, but have since bounced back well. With both Lille and Lyon playing at their best, PSG subsequently have a tough challenge ahead.
Moving to Spain, it is looking increasingly likely that Atletico Madrid will unexpectedly topple Barcelona and Real Madrid this campaign. They currently sit five points clear of their Madrid rivals with two games in hand, and eight points ahead of Barcelona with one game in hand. As mentioned previously, Diego Simeone led Atletico to the title seven years ago, and has the experience to do it again. His teams are built on solid defensive foundations, and it has been no different this time round. Twelve goals conceded in twenty games is impressive, and is unsurprisingly the best defensive record in the division. Jan Oblak is one of the best keepers in the world, and the back three of Felipe, Hermoso and Gimenez has been an efficient system. Signing Luis Suarez from Barcelona was also a master stroke. It not only weakened their rivals, but Suarez has been a great boost to this side, scoring sixteen league goals already whilst playing alongside the talented Joao Felix. The team’s only defeat so far this season came away at Real Madrid, which is a tough test in any circumstances, and this highlights its resolve under Simeone. It appears that it has managed to cope with the loss of Thomas Partey, which many thought would swing the championship towards Barcelona or Real Madrid.
However, both major clubs in Spain have lacked consistency. Barcelona have done reasonably well under Ronald Koeman but continue to be plagued by the uncertainty over Lionel Messi’s future. Beyond Messi, only really Griezmann has contributed in the goals column, and with a somewhat shaky defence, it is not surprising that Barcelona find themselves adrift of the pace this season, and letting Suarez go to Atletico was a big mistake. With regards to Real Madrid, it is well known that manager Zinedine Zidane has had great success in his two managerial spells, winning two league titles and three Champions Leagues. However, this season he has come under pressure. Despite winning against fellow rivals Atletico and Barcelona in the league, three out of their four losses so far have come at home and to relatively weak opposition in Cadiz, Alaves and Levante. They also only scraped through the Champions League group stage, and were humiliatingly knocked out of the Spanish Cup to third tier Alcoyano. This squad on paper possesses a huge amount of talent: Courtois, Ramos, Varane, Hazard, Kroos, Benzema, Modric, Casemiro and Isco to name a few. However, despite winning the league comfortably last season, the team is yet to show its full potential again this campaign. Outside of Benzema who has sixteen goals to his name this season, no-one else has really helped out, and this has been a major problem. Like Barcelona, they have plenty of work to do to catch up with Atletico and additional goal-scorers will need to contribute more.
In Italy, Juventus hold the joint longest title streak in Europe, with nine consecutive championships won, tied with Celtic in Scotland. Yet, extending this run is now under threat. They have yet to be on top spot at the end of any match week throughout the season, and we are now over half way through this campaign. Both AC Milan and Inter Milan have stepped up, creating the toughest competition that Juventus have had in Italy recently. AC Milan lead the way, two points clear of Inter, and seven points ahead of Juventus, although the Old Lady do have a game in hand. Maurizio Sarri was sacked at the end of last season and was replaced by club legend Andrea Pirlo. Despite winning the Super Cup, Pirlo’s team has yet to hit top form in the league. They have lost just two games, but they only won five out of their first twelve matches. Part of this problem has again been an over-reliance on the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo has scored sixteen league goals, but no-one outside him has scored more than five. Alvaro Morata has done well in the Champions League, but is yet to peak domestically. This team in recent years has also built on a solid defence, but this campaign has only kept six clean sheets in twenty one games.
AC Milan under Stefano Pioli have looked a team in tune. Led by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this team has gone on a run of form that has temporarily taken them to the summit of the division. It is a balanced side with Donnarumma in goal, stars Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez at the back, the powerful Kessie in midfield, the creative Calhanoglu on the wing, and Rafael Leao, and of course Ibrahimovic, in attack. They have now held top spot since match week four, and have done well up until this point. Meanwhile, Inter Milan will always be threatening with Antonio Conte in charge. The Italian famously led Chelsea to the Premier League title in 2016-17, and is targeting another Scudetto with the Nerazzurri, having previously won it with Juventus. They are the top goalscorers in the league, with Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez being a prolific duo up front. They were active in the summer window too, most notably bringing in Hakimi, Sanchez, Barella, Kolarov and Vidal, and all have given much needed squad depth. Conte has also now had the time to fully implement his three-at-the-back system, giving the team a clear structure. As it stands, Juventus, just like PSG, have two solid opponents for the title, and both Milan clubs also have added incentive to win it, given that this title streak from Juventus goes back a while now.
Overall, this season could be special. It is already special, being played behind closed doors and with a minimal pre-season, and as we have seen with teams like Manchester United, this has led to teams who in recent years have not been close to challenging for titles suddenly being involved in a title race. In France, Spain and Italy, a changing of the guard could be about to happen. With more than half the season done, the clubs that are serial champions have ground to make up. Whilst it is reasonable to expect them to put forward a good run come the end of the campaign, they would currently rather be in front than behind. This means that the final few months of this season promise to be some of the most exciting in the top European leagues in years.