Posted by: mdegeorge | April 29, 2011

Where have all the title races gone?

With April about to turn into May, the European soccer fan in me is braced for the intensity that is the run into the final month of the season. The torrid swings of momentum and six-point matches that dotted last May are the perfect culmination to a long, grueling season.

But the landscape of the major leagues on the continent is surprisingly bereft of anything resembling a compelling race pretty much across the board. League-by-league, there’s little left to play for but positioning.

In England, the protagonists that brought last year’s race down to the last day of the season are at again. But this time, eight-star Chelsea, whose drubbing of Wigan on the final day of 2009-10 allowed it to fend off an onrushing Manchester United squad, is in runner-up position more because of Arsenal’s faltering than anything they’ve done themselves.

After Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Stoke Feb. 23, the Gunners sat one point behind the Red Devils with 56 points (Man U did have one match in hand), having not lost in the league since a Dec. 13 contest with Man U. They also knew the Red Devils had several challenges ahead, with back-to-back away ties against Chelsea and Liverpool. The dice even rolled the Gunners’ way, with Man U dropping both of those contests.

But Arsenal has managed just one win and five draws from its last seven outings, while Manchester United has earned 16 of a possible 18 points from the six matches outside of the Chelsea and Liverpool losses. As a result, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men sit six points clear with four matches to play, needing just seven points to clinch a title regardless of what Chelsea does, and nine clear of the Gunners. The race isn’t over, as Arsenal and Manchester United meet this weekend at the Emirates, while Chelsea hosts Tottenham ahead of a trip to Old Trafford for a one-v-two showdown. But Man U would have to make an effort to squander this advantage.

In Italy, the title race looks done and dusted for Milan. It looked like it was going to be a another near miss as i Rossoneri had suffered the last two seasons, paving the way for Inter’s sixth straight Scudetto. But with the deficit down to a mere two points, host Milan romped in the April 2 Derby della Madonina to open a five-point gap. Inter subsequently faltered two weeks later at the hands of Parma, while third-place contenders Napoli dropped two straight matches, leaving Milan, winners of four straight, eight points clear with four matches to play.

Milan need just five points from their final four matches, an attainable goal thanks to home dates with mid-table sides Bologna and Cagliari. They still have difficult away trips to likely European qualifiers Roma and Udinese. Inter meanwhile still has to travel to Napoli for a two-v-three battle for automatic qualification to Champions League, while gli Azzurri conclude the season with a trip to Juventus.

In Spain, the race was all but salted away by Barcelona’s draw at Real Madrid two weeks ago, a match that had Los Blancos won would have cut the deficit to a workable five points with six matches left. As it is though, the Blaugrana sit eight points clear at the summit with five matches left.

Barca has lost only once in the league all season and are on pace for 103 points if they win out. Though they might want to rest some players ahead of a Champions League final they have the inside line on after a 2-0 away win against their Madrid rivals at the midweek, they have a very easy finish. They face only two teams in the top half of the standings, the highest-placed team being cross-town rivals Espanyol in eighth, which has to travel to the Nou Camp. Real Madrid, meanwhile, has to travel to meet potential European qualifiers Villarreal and Sevilla.

In Germany, Borussia Dortmund has led since the late fall and appears to show little signs of relinquishing that lead to a schizophrenic field in the Bundesliga this season. They sit five points clear with three matches to play, and though their form has been indifferent of late (two wins, two draws, and two losses in the last six league matches), they have the benefit of two remaining home matches and a trip to struggling Werder Bremen.

The nearest competitor is Bayer Leverkusen, which has come on late with a strong spring and a lack of competition. They play two of the last three matches away from home and have dates with the seventh (Hamburg) and eighth (Freiburg) teams in the table. Both teams have benefitted from a lousy season by Bayern Munich (seven losses and a coaching change) and the cooling of red-hot starters Mainz (which opened the season with a Bundesliga record seven straight wins). It’s been a topsy-turvy table that has seen two recent champions (Wolfsburg and Stuttgart) and last season’s runner-up (Schalke) each spend time in the relegation zone and endure management changes, while a team that survived the drop by a mere two points in 2010, Hannover 96, is currently in position to qualify for Champions League.

In Portugal, the European success that has three Portuguese teams in the Europa League semifinals and almost guarantees a trophy headed to Iberia (especially given FC Porto’s 5-1 first-leg drubbing of Villarreal that almost ensures their passage to the finals) hasn’t translated into domestic competition, with Porto having clinched at title April 3. They sit an astounding 19 points clear of Benfica with a plus-51 goal differential after 27 matches (three to play). The undefeated Porto has dropped only four points all season and are the only team in the league with fewer than seven losses.

There are some races worth watching:

In the Netherlands, it’s a three-horse race at the top with defending champions Twente Enschede holding a slim one-point advantage over Ajax Amsterdam and three points over PSV Eindhoven with only two matches to play. Twente hosts bottom club Willem II Tilburg before a trip to Ajax on the season’s final day which could be for all the marbles, a week after the teams renew acquaintances in the Dutch Cup final at Rotterdam’s De Kuip Stadion. Ajax and PSV both hold prohibitive goal-difference advantages (39 and 44, respectively, to Twente’s 29), and the Red-Whites could sneak a title as the other two battle it out.

In France, where parity always seems to reign, holder Marseille maintains a one-point lead on Lille with plenty of football to be played (six matches). The sleeper could be Lyon, which sits five points adrift with of Marseille on 56 points. Lille has a beast of a schedule remaining, with its last four matches against clubs in the top half of the table (St. Etienne, Sochaux, Paris Saint-Germain and Stade Rennes). Lyon and Marseille meet at the Stade de Gerland May 8 in a match that could vault Les Gones back into the title race, especially given the fact that OM is Lyon’s only top-half opponent the rest of the seasons (though Marseille has only one other, a trip to Lorient).

In Scotland, it’s no surprise that the race will come down to Rangers and Celtic, which are guaranteed a 1-2 finish as they have enjoyed all but once since 1998. Rangers are currently ahead with 81 points to Celtic’s 80, though Celtic does hold a match in hand. Celtic have had the better of the head-to-head this season, winning twice in the league in four meetings, the last of which was last weekend and ended in a draw. Rangers did oust Celtic for the Co-operative Insurance Cup, though Celtic enacted revenge in the Scottish Cup semifinals. Both teams face the four teams below them in the standings (Heart of Midlothian, Dundee, Kilmarnock and Motherwell), while Celtic’s match in hand is a trip to the next highest-placed team, eighth-placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

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