European title races heat up

As the season enters its final few weeks and the World Cup comes into view, casts his eye over how Europe’s title races are shaping up

Lionel Messi has spearheaded Barcelona's bid for glory at home and abroad this season. prismatico via Flickr Creative Commons

Lionel Messi has spearheaded Barcelona's bid for glory at home and abroad this season. prismatico via Flickr Creative Commons

Chelsea’s victory over reigning Premier League champions Manchester United at Old Trafford this lunchtime has added more drama to this season’s title race. Carlo Ancelotti’s men have gone two points clear of the Red Devils and back to the zenith of the English football pyramid. Injured Wayne Rooney occupies first place in the race for the Golden Boot, but Didier Drogba is close behind. Sunderland’s Darren Bent, Carlos Tévez and Fernando Torres are not out of the running yet though. Arsenal did their bit to ensure it remains tight at the top, breaking down Wolves at the Emirates and gaining a 1-0 win which, though rough on the visitors, maintains the exciting fight for the Premier League crown — if you’re a neutral!

It is not just our own league which is proving enthralling in the European club game however, with the showpiece that is the World Cup little more than two months away. On the continent, in some cases, things are even closer. Barcelona and Real Madrid are going neck and neck for the La Liga title with the team from Catalonia just in front by three points after beating Athletic Bilbao 4-1 last night. Real have the chance to respond at Racing Santander tonight. April 10th is a date for the diary here with the second El Clásico derby of the season taking place at the Bernabéu which, provided there is a winner, may prove decisive in who reigns in Spain. The clubs have their respective Argentinean stars – Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín are both still just 22, but between them they have netted nearly sixty goals and fifteen assists in all competitions.

Such destructive firepower surely speaks for itself, even to national coach Diego Maradona. The pair are Span’s top two league goalscorers (Messi 25; Higuaín 23) and the individual battle to capture the Pichichi Trophy will spur them on to fire their respective side to title glory. It would be wrong, though, to see either Real or Barca as being a one-man team. The Galácticos have Cristiano Ronaldo who remains prolific, having grabbed twenty-four goals already, and Kaká, a little quieter than his usual exceptionally high standards, but remaining a player who can always change a game. Barcelona has their well-documented wealth of midfield talent and twenty-goal Zlatan Ibrahimović, who has adjusted from the Italian game quicker than may have been anticipated in some quarters. All these ingredients combine to ensure that the duel between Spain’s two biggest clubs remains as fascinating as ever.

Italy’s Serie A is just as tight as the Premier League. Internazionale are still in pole position to defend their title, but remain only a point clear of AS Roma with city rivals A. C. Milan a further two behind them. That the Rossoneri are still in the title picture is quite remarkable given the manner of their Champion’s League exit to Manchester United in the Last 16. No Italian side has been exceptionally prolific. Inter’s Diego Milito (18 league goals, 22 in all competitions) chases the Serie A top scorer Antonio Di Natale of Udinese (21). Samuel Eto’o is also in double figures for the Nerazzurri, but will not reach last season’s tally of 34 he got at the Nou Camp. The usual suspects, Totti, De Rossi and Mirko Vučinić, all have ten or more for Roma, whilst Alexandre Pato, Ronaldinho and the much-maligned Marco Borriello have achieved this with Milan. For me, the Scudetto is still very much José Mourinho’s to lose.

Four points separate the top six in France’s La Championnat, with defending champions Bordeaux replaced by Lyon on goal difference last night. Lyon came from behind with two goals in eight second-half minutes to beat Rennes and were further boosted by the news that Bordeaux had been beaten 2-1 at home by Nancy. Montpellier and Auxerre occupy third and fourth respectively, separated on goal difference. Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux side retain two games in hand, as do sixth-placed Olympique Marseille. Mamadou Niang sits top of the goalscoring charts with 15, closely followed by AS Monaco’s Brazilian set-piece taking winger Nenê and a host of others including former Porto striker Lisandro López, now at Lyon, and Ghanaian frontman Asamoah Gyan.

It is not as close as it was in the Bundesliga. Leaders Bayern Munich and Schalke have pulled away from Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. Despite missing much of the season through injury, Munich’s influential winger Franck Ribéry remains one of the most sought after players by Spanish and English clubs. His absence has been covered by Dutchman Arjen Robben, who has scored ten league goals (14 in all competitions) from the wing. Germany’s second all-time goalscorer Mirsolav Klose has had a stop-start season, netting a mere four times. At this stage in his career he perhaps feels he has nothing to prove, falling into complacency, and seemingly sure that his international record is enough in itself to justify his selection for South Africa. It is a similar story for his national strike partner Lukas Podolski who returned to boyhood club Cologne in the summer. Come the World Cup he may play out wide to accommodate 14-goal Mario Gómez or the Bundesliga’s joint top scorer Stefan Kiessling, of Bayer Leverkusen, (18) alongside Klose.

Benfica look on course to win their first league title for five years in Portugal, despite the gallant effort of Sporting Braga. The Lisbon side caught them up after Christmas and have now overtaken them with a game in hand. Porto sit third, eight points behind the leaders and five off second-place – they will do well to get into the Champions League next season. Sporting are a distant fourth. It’s a two horse race for the top scorer spot as well between Paraguayan Oscar Cardozo (19) and Colombian Radamel Falcao (18), who made his much anticipated move to Europe at the beginning of the season.

Finally, the Eredivisie sees the top three separated by five points. Neither of the big two sits at the summit however, but Steve McClaren’s FC Twente. Like every other England fan, I hate to give him any credit, but he deserves it. His side have a seven point lead over Martin Jol’s Ajax ahead of the Amsterdam side’s trip to Den Haag this morning. Simply put Twente will make history if they win the Dutch league. This and the fact they were runners-up last season are not to deny the fact that McClaren has been backed by the board with funds. This takes nothing away from top goalscorer Bryan Ruiz (22) who cost a bargain price of €5 million. Despite this haul Ajax striker Luis Suárez leads the way with a staggering goals to game ratio which is just more than one per match (41 in 39, 29 in 27 in the league!) and I would not at all be surprised to see him plying his trade in a more challenging league next season. No disrespect to the Eredivisie, but Premier League watchers have seen time and again that the standard in Holland is no barometer of quality.

One comment

  1. 4 Apr ’10 at 2:08 pm

    Chorley Barman

    I think it’s really good to see the French league being much more competitive this season. Their teams have been more successful in europe and with Lyon’s dominance broken domestically, things have become much more open.

    It’d be nice to see the top 2 in Spain being challenged more as they’ve been dominant for so long but nobody can compete financially i suppose. Valencia’s money problems are well documents and Seville aren’t really a big enough club to challenge the leaders.

    I still fancy Man Utd for the premiership although a lot will depend on how soon Rooney can return. If Man Utd had a 2 point lead at this stage i would say the title was over. With Chelsea i always feel they can still trip up, but that’s just me.

    Suarez has certainly been in lethal form in Holland but as you mention he has prove he is better than the likes of Kuyt, Kezman and the disastrous Alves (worst signing ever!?). The world cup should hopefully provide him with the opportunity to do this. Although Uruguay are in a competitive group they have every chance of qualifying in my opinion and a few top performances in South Africa should have potential English and Spanish suitors forming an orderly queue for his services.