Barcelona in trouble? Can Inter catch Juventus? State of play in Europe’s big five leagues
The big five European leagues return to action this weekend following the final international break of 2019. With roughly a third of their seasons complete and the January transfer window just over a month away, we take a look at the various states of play.
To see Manchester City lying fourth in what was supposed to be a two-horse race for the Premier League title is an indication both of their less-than-stellar start to the campaign and the superb form of Chelsea and Leicester City.
Chelsea were supposedly set for a season of transition under Frank Lampard and Leicester were tipped as potential candidates for a top-six finish in Brendan Rodgers’ first full campaign as manager, but both teams have completely surpassed expectations. Lampard’s faith in youth has been spectacularly rewarded, with the performances of players like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori turning Chelsea into unexpected neutrals’ favourites, while Rodgers’ swaggering Leicester look an even better side than the one that turned English football on its head by winning the title in 2016.
With Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham sitting eight, nine and 11 points off the Champions League places respectively, you could be forgiven for wondering if the battle for a top-four finish is not over already (although new Spurs manager Jose Mourinho is likely to have something to say about that). Leaders Liverpool look untouchable and should they successfully negotiate a taxing December schedule that features fixtures in the Champions League and Carabao Cup and a trip to Doha for the Club World Cup, it will be difficult to see them being reeled in.
While Man City still seem the most likely threat to the leaders’ eight-point advantage, Chelsea and Leicester do not look likely to take their feet off the pedal any time soon. — Tom Williams
Spanish Primera Division: Which “big three” team looks best equipped for the title?
None of Spain’s giants have entirely convinced this season; all three of them have struggled for consistency and, in fact, for a clear identity. It’s extremely tight at the top of the table but at times, that has felt like equality of mediocrity rather than excellence.
In recent weeks, Real Madrid appear to have started to find the feet a little more and, just as importantly, they have found something resembling a coherent team. Fede Valverde’s inclusion gives the mobility in midfield that Zinedine Zidane wanted — it seems he will now regularly play with Casemiro and Toni Kroos or Luka Modric — while Rodrygo has been convincing on the right wing. Eden Hazard is starting to perform on the opposite flank and Karim Benzema has started the season superbly, with nine goals and three assists in 11 league starts.
Barcelona are struggling to find the right fit for Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann — all of whom featured prominently in the 2019 FC 100 — and they have been very uncomfortable when teams have put them under pressure. They also look like two different teams. At Camp Nou, they’re a perfect 6 from 6 with a +18 goal difference; away from home, they’ve been very poor, with seven points from a possible 18 and only eight goals scored.
– 2019 FC 100: The best players, managers in men’s soccer
Defensively, Barca have been too vulnerable for a champion: Gerard Pique‘s form has plummeted. But they still have Messi. They don’t so much need anything in terms of players, but more a mechanism in which they function together. An identity, perhaps? This is the recurring debate: Have Barcelona lost their religion? Their problems are probably systemic, although when it comes to specific players, it would not be a huge surprise to see Griezmann slipping behind Ousmane Dembele or Ansu Fati in big games.
As for Atletico, this team was supposed to be different and exciting — Joao Felix! Alvaro Morata! A new-look defense in front of the impenetrable Jan Oblak! — but a familiar process appears to be played out, one in which that evolution into something more expansive remains incomplete. It’s almost as if they can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it.
At the same time, they’ve lost some of the certainty of previous seasons as Diego Godin, Juanfran and Lucas Hernandez moved on. There is a disconnect now, a sense that not everyone shares the same idea about how to play. They are neither one thing nor the other, which doesn’t bode well for title aspirations.
It may be a leap to call anyone favourites and recent years have shown that Barcelona seem to have something more than the rest, but right now that no longer appears the case. Perhaps Madrid are the best bet. — Sid Lowe
This season has seen a clutch of smaller sides impress while those expected to contend have fallen behind. Cagliari are a revelation, unbeaten in 10 league games and winning at Napoli to sit among the European places. Lazio have dazzled at times, racking up 28 goals in 12 games and winning games in a variety of ways, from close/late victories at Milan and Fiorentina to thumping dominance over the likes of Torino, Genoa and Sampdoria.
Verona and Parma deserve a mention, too, but the biggest challenge to the defending champions are Inter, who immediately assumed the guise of an Antonio Conte team — aggressive, assertive, never-say-die — and are convincing contenders for the first time since 2010. With 10 wins from 12 games (including seven victories by a single goal) and 15 goals from new strike pair Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, they’re the most credible rival. But they still have some way to go (as Conte keeps reminding the media) if they’re to be the first non-Juve team to win the Scudetto since 2011: Juve rarely looked troubled in the recent 2-1 win at San Siro, which showed Conte who’s boss.
Juve’s edge, as always, is depth. Their “second” team is Gianluigi Buffon, Danilo, Daniele Rugani, Merih Demiral, Mattia De Sciglio, Sami Khedira, Emre Can, Adrien Rabiot, Aaron Ramsey, Douglas Costa and Gonzalo Higuain, and that’s respecting the club’s decision not to make Mario Mandzukic eligible for selection. That’s a team capable of qualifying for the Europa League. Inter may have broken their transfer record twice, but this is why Conte thinks they still have recruitment to do in order to close the gap.
There’s also little chance of the gap closing in January; while Juve need another player like Miralem Pjanic, the straw that stirs the drink, Conte feels like Inter need an extra striker and more help in midfield. Instead of Arturo Vidal, they need someone capable of lightening the load on Marcelo Brozovic, particularly now that Stefano Sensi is experiencing problems staying fit.
It’s still early but there is every indication this could be the tightest, most competitive title chase in years. Last year’s duel between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund has been consigned to a distant memory: Dortmund look well off the pace in 2019 while Bayern, still operating with plenty of uncertainty over their managerial facility, have a four-point gap to bridge over surprise leaders Borussia Monchengladbach.
Can ‘Gladbach last the course for their first title since 1977? It would be a major surprise, but they boast an outstanding manager in Marco Rose, who arrived during the summer from Red Bull Salzburg, and an exciting group of attackers that includes Marcus Thuram, son of ex-France World Cup winner Lilian. They mean business but there’s a nagging sense that the most likely long-term pretenders to Bayern’s crowd will be RB Leipzig, who sit second and have been building up to something this major for a while. Julian Nagelsmann is showing he was no flash in the pan at Hoffenheim and they now have the strength in depth to make a concerted title tilt to the very end.
Freiberg, level on points with Leipzig and Bayern, would offer a Leicester-style fairytale if they lasted the pace and, with Leipzig already among their victims, they’re the biggest success story so far. But the feeling remains that Bayern’s next managerial move (assuming Hansi Flick is indeed only standing in until early 2020) may have deep repercussions for everyone. Enter Mauricio Pochettino… and perhaps an eighth successive Bundesliga crown? — Nick Ames
Paris Saint-Germain’s domestic campaign so far is easy to summarise: dominant against the big clubs (4-0 win against Marseille, 1-0 at Lyon) and lacking focus against smaller teams, with three losses already against Dijon, Reims and Rennes. Whenever Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have been absent due to injury or suspension, Angel Di Maria has been the star, though Mauro Icardi has also had a big impact. PSG are already eight points clear at the top. Game over.
Of the teams that could have potentially pushed PSG this season, Marseille are the only ones where they should be. They have lost as many times as the Parisians (three) but have let themselves down with four disappointing draws this season against winnable opponents. Nevertheless, Andre Villas-Boas is doing a good job considering the financial restrictions he has to deal with and the absence of his best player, Florian Thauvin, injured since the start of the season.
For Lyon and Monaco, it has been a roller coaster as usual. Lyon sacked manager Sylvinho in October after a terrible start. To replace him, the club hired Rudi Garcia, who was pushed out at Marseille three months earlier. Lyon fans aren’t happy and the results haven’t improved much. Monaco picked up where they left off last season. After a torrid start, they have four wins in their past five games and lie 11th. The main reason is the performances of Wissam Ben Yedder (nine goals) and ex-Leicester forward Islam Slimani (five goals, eight assists) up front.
The surprise package this season, though, is Angers. Stephane Moulin & Co. are third after some really solid performances early on in the season but have only won once in their past seven games.
Marseille won’t have money to spend in January, which is a shame because with a bit more depth and talent, AVB could do much better. Monaco will definitely invest; they need better defenders and it should be a busy month in the Principality. PSG will only recruit if there is a good opportunity, especially at right-back, while Lyon will want to back Garcia if he asks for it. That said, PSG should again romp to the title despite rarely showing their best form. — Julien Laurens