The Early Sub: Weekend Round Up From Europe’s Top Leagues

A big week around Europe that absolutely culminated in Manchester has come to a close this weekend. Big matches in the top leagues of Europe, title races in England, Germany, and Portugal tighten while title races in Spain, France and the Netherlands remain close. I’ll recap you on all the biggest matches and biggest news with analysis from all the weekend’s action.

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The English Premier League

Right when we’re engraving Chelsea as the 2016/17 season champions, we get sucked right back into a good old fashioned title race. The seemingly unstoppable Blues have now lost two games this month, allowing Tottenham to close the gap to 4. Manchester United put on a seemingly perfect performance at Old Trafford as the Red Devil defense left Eden Hazard and the rest of the Chelsea defense, befuddled and frustrated. Zero shots on target is the only statistic you need to see, to understand the dominance Mourinho’s men showcased against England’s top side. Ander Herrera was on a mission, specifically marking Hazard and being the obstacle that Chelsea most often ran into while building an attack. He also provided a goal and an assist to stamp the classy performance he put on (even if he blatantly handled the ball before setting up Rashford), with Tottenham’s thrashing of Bournemouth at the Lane on Saturday, the title race in England is wide open.

Liverpool also put on a scrappy and tough win over West Brom at the Hawthorns to maintain their 3rd place status in the league. The title race is absolutely over for the Reds as they have no chance of catching up to either Chelsea or Tottenham, but holding off Manchester City for the rest of the season and locking up an automatic Champions League spot would be an accomplishment for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Manchester City also took care of business over Southampton on the south coast to keep the pressure on Liverpool and Manchester United. City are performing the balancing act of attempting to chase down Liverpool while also holding off Manchester United for a top 4 spot. City can continue to take care of business but at the end of the day, it’s United who control their own destiny with a game in hand over their noisy neighbors, and the Manchester Derby would be the opportune time to hop over City. Plenty of questions still left to be answered this Premier League season.

I believe Manchester United are playing like the best team in England at the moment. 22 games straight unbeaten in the Premier League is a convincing argument to confirm that claim. Before Sunday, I thought Chelsea were playing like the best team in England, even after the Palace game, but it’s evident that Chelsea is running out of gas here at the final stretch and Tottenham are on a mission to chase the Blues down. As dramatic as it’s getting, Conte is going to regroup his men and have them refocus. Plus, Chelsea don’t have a very difficult schedule remaining in the league, they only play Everton as their final top 7 opponent and only 2 of their remaining 6 league games are away from Stamford Bridge. Chelsea will win the title while Tottenham fall just short. Liverpool and Manchester City will hang onto their Champions League places and stay where they are in 3rd and 4th respectively. That leaves United with only the Europa League as their path to the Champions League and which they should win. United would be able to chase down their Manchester rivals but they’ll probably drop points at the Emirates (a draw) and they’re unbeaten streak will be snapped at White Hart Lane if it isn’t snapped at the Etihad. Too many tough matches on the road for United to snatch the top 4 from City.

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Spanish La Liga

Real Madrid escaped El Molinon by the skin off their teeth on Saturday with yet another late late goal from Los Blancos to snatch all 3 points. This win keeps Madrid firmly in the driver’s seat of La Liga going into El Clasico next Sunday. Real go into the legendary match with their eternal rivals 3 points atop the league with a game in hand. This means that even if Madrid lose the Clasico, they’ll still have a game over Barca to put them up and over them. This means that the Clasico is monumental for the Blaugrana’s hopes to win the title again. They need to beat Los Blancos in order to directly close the gap by three points and bring them within striking distance if Madrid were to slip again in the league. The loss to Malaga put a humongous dent in Barca’s pursuit of Madrid but a win over their rivals could make up for it and give them hope to catch up to their Spanish rivals.

Outside the top two, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla battle it out for the final two Champions League spots. No teams outside the top four threaten either side from qualifying for the Champions League but whoever finishes 3rd and 4th matters when it comes to the Champions League. The 3rd place finisher of La Liga receives an automatic bid to the Champions League group stages while the 4th place finisher must participate in a playoff in order to reach the group stages. It’s another couple of fixtures that will add to the long and taxing season for their players. Seperated by three points, Atleti sit far from comfortably in 3rd place with their Andalusian rivals looking to chase them down.

Things don’t look bright for the Blaugrana going into their climactic match against Real Madrid. Being brushed aside by Juventus in Turin was the final exclamation point to highlight Barca’s struggles on the road, especially against top opposition. Look no further then the beatings that were delivered to Barcelona by Manchester City and PSG in addition to the beating delivered by Paulo Dybala and co. 4-0 at the Etihad, 4-0 in Paris and 3-0 in Turin give all the signs of what’s to come in Madrid on Sunday. The Bernabeu has been a fortress this year with Real Madrid only losing one game this season at home and that was during their small skid earlier in 2017. Those struggles have gone and Madrid look refocused and reenergized, especially after their triumph in Munich. All signs point towards a Madrid victory on Sunday, and a first La Liga victory for Los Blancos since Mourinho in 2012.

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German Bundesliga

The supposed “title race” in Germany got a bit tighter this past weekend with Bayern dropping points to Leverkusen after playing a goalless draw. It was a frustrating day for the Bavarians who had trouble finding clear cut chances all game long and botched a few chances as well as the game was there for the taking for the leaders. It’s been a frustrating couple weeks for the champions who lost on the road to Hoffenheim earlier in the month and losing the first leg of their Champions League tie against Real Madrid. Now after failing to find the net against a Leverkusen side who sit in the bottom half of the table, Bayern has to pelt the Bernabeu net with goals or else face elimination from the Champions League. Speaking of the Champions League, Europe’s most unpopular fairytale, RB Leipzig officially qualified for the Champions League in their first season in the Bundesliga. They crushed Freiburg 4-0 and closed the gap on Bayern but qualifying for the Champions League is an incredible feat for the club even if they don’t catch up to Bayern. Because they won’t.

Hoffenheim topped Borussia Monchengladbach in a goalfest 5-3 while Dortmund took care of business over Frankfurt in the Signal Iduna Park. This sets up the dramatic race for third in the Bundesliga as both Hoffenheim and Dortmund are miles out of the title race and have nothing but positioning left to worry about when it comes to the Bundesliga. Just like in Spain, 3rd place means automatic qualification into the Champions League group stages while a 4th place finish will send you to a playoff for the Champions League group stages. Dortmund was predicted to compete for the Bundesliga title with Bayern but their form in the league hasn’t been very strong this season, thus resulting in Dortmund prioritizing the Champions League. Both sides will battle down the wire for 3rd place which will culminate in their gargantuan meeting in Dortmund in early May. That matchup will surely determine once and for all who’s to claim 3rd place in the Bundesliga.

It’s been a tough stretch for Bayern and it could very well result in their elimination from the Champions League. It’s tough luck that Bayern drew Real Madrid in the Quarterfinals and it’s even tougher luck that their Quarterfinal matchup comes right at Bayern’s lowest form of the season. They will be eliminated by Real Madrid on Tuesday and Bayern will just have to reload for next season, especially with the departures of Lahm and Xabi Alonso but their struggles won’t even threaten their Bundesliga throne. Only five games left and a comfortable 7 point lead over Leipzig only means that Bayern is going to take the German title once again but their impending exit from the Champions League will leave a bitter taste to the end of the season for the Bavarian giants.

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Italian Serie A

Serie A was the only league that I didn’t mention in my intro due to the fact that there is no title race here. It’s been exciting all year but with six games to go, there seems to be no catching up to Juventus. They maintain an 8 point grip over Roma and Juventus are in top form which is evident in their domination of Barcelona this past Wednesday. Allegri has his side clicking on all fronts and they’ll be sure to wrap up Serie A once and for all before looking towards their larger goal of Champions League glory.

The only objective left for Roma to fulfill now that they’re once again being denied any chance at any trophy, is to make sure they’ve locked up an auto qualification position for the Champions League next season. They’re Champions League campaign this season was ended before it even began by the hands of Porto, and this season, Roma look to skip the Champions League playoff and slot into the group stages automatically by finishing 2nd. Napoli look to snatch the 2nd spot once again over their rivals as they moved closer to Roma after cruising by Udinese this weekend. Roma dropped points to Atalanta by drawing 1 each and that leaves both sides split by 2 points with Roma on top. There may not be a title race in Italy but there’s definitely a race in Serie A and that’s for 2nd.

What’s impressive about Juventus this season is, not only are they once again locking down Serie A in dominant fashion for what seems like the 10th year in a row, but they look absolutely frightening while doing it. This is different from their other 6 consecutive titles because they just didn’t seem that scary in Europe. In Europe, Juventus were the organized and difficult opponent that must be lept over in the Quarterfinals but this year, it’s different. The Champions League is an attainable goal for the Italian champs and they are turning into a trendy pick to become kings of Europe. I don’t think Juve can top Real Madrid, I don’t think they could even top Bayern, but those two sides are the only ones that can step up to Juventus. And one of them is being eliminated this round no matter what. Juventus are scary good, and it’s time to take them very seriously as contenders for Europe, but they’ll still fall short to Real Madrid. Whoops.

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Ligue 1, Liga NOS, and Eredivisie Quick Hits

In France, there’s a title race for the first time in what seems like forever. Three sides all separated by 4 points, in a foot race for the title. Monaco sit atop of Ligue 1 over PSG by 3 points and Nice sit 4 points off of Monaco and only a point behind PSG as they were all able to pick up victories over the season. It’s easily the tightest race of the top 5 leagues in Europe and it’s one that’s going down to the wire. Nice is a great story but in a race like this, slip ups will cost a team the whole darn thing. And although he’s won a Premier League title before, I can’t see a side who counts on Mario Balotelli for their goals winning a title. At least not yet, Balo has done a magnificent job turning his career around after his circus at Liverpool but his turn around only just started this year. Fairy tales don’t happen like that, not that quickly, so that leaves Monaco and PSG. Monaco score goals at an alarming rate, like seriously, Mbappe and Falcao are the real deal. Especially Mbappe who’s probably the most sought out human being in world football right now. But like I said with Nice. Fairy tales don’t happen like this, and although Monaco is a terrific side, the Coupe De La Ligue matchup told it all between both sides. PSG OWNED Monaco that game with a 4-1 victory to nab the first trophy of the season and that wasn’t too long ago. Monaco will slip up at some point this season and PSG will nab the league from them too. If Monaco keeps all their pieces in the summer, then I have reason to believe that they’ll dominate France next season, but I don’t see them keeping their pieces so we can forget that.

In Portugal, it’s a race between two of the three biggest clubs in Portugal. Porto and Benfica sit only three points apart with five games to go. Porto were only a point behind their rivals but Porto dropped points by tying Braga over the weekend. It’s a tight one in Portugal but this past weekend was telling with Porto dropping points to a non-top 3 team. In addition to that, Porto had their chance to one up their rivals when they played each other earlier in the month but Porto drew that game as well. They still have their shot at redemption, there’s 5 to go, not all is lost but Porto are making it very difficult on themselves and their going to catch up. Benfica will once again be champions of Portugal this season.

Now for the tightest race that you are not aware of, and that’s in the Netherlands. Surprisingly, it isn’t between Ajax and PSV but between Ajax and Feyenoord. With 3 games to go, Feyenoord hang onto the league lead by a slim one point lead. Ajax have covered the ground and are in hot pursuit of their rivals by winning their last 4 league games and beating Feyenoord themselves, earlier in the month. Ajax continue to chase down their rivals with a lineup that rarely consists of anyone over 27 as well. Even if Ajax fail to capture the league title over the Rotterdam club, their should still be a testament to their youth academy that is currently producing kids who could walk out on the pitch and compete for the Dutch title right now. It’s absurdly impressive and it’s almost become expected from the Amsterdam academy. And with all that being said, Ajax is totally going to chase down Feyenoord and snatch the title away. These kids are too good, too full of energy, and are destined for greatness. And each one of their glories will begin with winning the Eredivisie this season. The same way superstars like Zlatan, Suarez and Eriksen have.

 

 

 

 

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