THIS could finally be the season when the stranglehold starts to loosen across European football and some of the top leagues finally celebrate a new champion. According to CIES Football Observatory, trophies in Portugal, Spain, Italy and France will be changing hands, while Manchester City will regain the Premier League they last won in 2019. Bayern Munich, needless to say, will make it nine in a row in Germany.
It is about time there was some change in Europe’s major leagues, because there’s nothing so boring than a monopoly and the familiar roll call of Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich has become rather tedious in its predictability. But we are coming to the end of the Messi – Ronaldo – Neymar era, and that is demonstrated in the way their respective clubs are performing.
C’est une surprise
The biggest shock in CIES’s calculations is the unseating of PSG in France. Given the enormous financial advantage the Parisians have over their rivals in Ligue 1, this could cost recently-hired Mauricio Pochettino his job. Although he’s barely got his feet under the PSG table, the popular former Tottenham coach will be judged on how quickly he wins the trophies PSG’s management covet, namely the UEFA Champions League and Ligue 1. As we have seen, even winning trophies is no guarantee of job security at PSG, indeed much of football, so finishing as a bridesmaid to less wealthy opponents will not be well received.
So, who will be champions if PSG fail to retain their title? Olympique Lyonnais, even though they are currently behind PSG and leaders Lille. Lyon will play host to PSG and Lille over the next couple of months, games that will have a huge influence on the outcome of the title race. Will Lyon emerge as the top team to secure their first title since 2008? It does seem to be a big ask and when you consider PSG’s huge, bulding wallet, it is difficult to look beyond the capital, no matter how much wishful thinking prevails among French football fans.
Nobody is writing Juventus off yet in Italy, but the scudetto could be tipping away from Turin to Milan, with Inter and AC Milan desperately trying to get back to the top after a relatively barren and uninteresting spell in the history of Milanese football. The two teams play each other on February 21 and given there’s only a point between them at the moment, this is a vital clash that would surely be enhanced with a 75,000 crowd inside the San Siro. CIES predicts Inter will come out in top at the end of the season, which will give them their first title since 2010 when they won a treble of Serie A, Copa Italia and Champions League. It’s almost like old times.
La fin du cycle
But could Juventus confound the critics and rediscover their best form in the closing months? Any team with Cristiano Ronaldo in its line-up cannot be easily dismissed. Juve have only lost three games, but draws have cost them dear in 2020-21. CIES believe Juve will mount a recovery and finish with three points less than champions Inter (they are eight behind at present), so their late season matches with Inter and AC Milan will be absolutely crucial.
It has been clear for some time Real Madrid and Barcelona are coming to the end of a cycle of sorts and their performances in 2020-21 underline this. This has given a resurgent Atlético the chance to stake a claim to the La Liga title and they’ve been in excellent form, building a five point lead while having two games in hand on Real and they are eight clear of Barca. They’ve lost just one league game (the Madrid derby) and will play Real on March 7 and Barca on May 9. Atlético last won the La Liga title in 2014, but they have more of a hold on the current race than at any point in 2013-14.
Over in Portugal, Sporting are enjoying their best campaign in years and are 10 points ahead of reigning champions Porto. Unbeaten in 19 games, CIES forecasts that Sporting will end the 2020-21 season nine ahead of Porto and that Benfica will finish outside the top three for the first time since 2008. Sporting last won the championship in 2002, so real success is long overdue.
World and European champions Bayern Munich are poised for their ninth consecutive Bundesliga title, although RB Leipzig will be just eight points behind, according to CIES. But it does look as though Schalke 04, one of Europe’s best supported clubs, but biggest underachievers, are destined for Bundesliga 2.
The Premier trophy may be heading back to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but the most interesting aspect of the English league is that the top six will include Leicester City and Aston Villa, which will be only the fifth time in the last 18 years (since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and changed the dynamic of football in the UK) that two members of the “big six” have not finished in the first half dozen places. If the analysis works, then the two teams excluded from the top six will be Tottenham (9th) and Arsenal (11th).
Why so many disruptions to the status quo, however welcome they might be? Firstly, we live in strange, worrying times and teams that have benefitted from a huge, passionate home crowd have lost some advantage in the time of covid-19. Secondly, teams are playing lots of games within a short space of time, and although nobody ever has much sympathy for people who earn lots of money, fatigue has contributed to a levelling of the playing field. Thirdly, the transfer market has clearly dried up in recent months – witness the recent window – and clubs have not been so keen to spend to improve their existing squads. Lastly, some teams are reaching the end of a natural cycle and their players are getting that little bit older and perhaps less effective. All things considered, the CIES paper is a prediction, but if it proves to be correct, European football will have received a significant boost from multiple changes, providing a reminder that nothing goes on forever – not even pandemics.