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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Leverkusen, Girona and why the title races in Europe could be more exciting than ever

The Premier League is not the only elite European division with a title race brewing.

Not since Leicester City’s iconic triumph in 2015-16 has there been a new winner of one of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, but now we could have two in the space of a season — in Germany and Spain.

Bayern Munich’s 11 seasons of dominance could be about to end, while a club not called Barcelona or Real Madrid are top of La Liga.

In Italy, there is only a point between the top two, Liverpool and Manchester City look set to duel it out in England, and it’s all to play for in Portugal and Turkey, too.

France, we’ll leave you to guess.

Two dates to circle in your diaries are February 4 (Arsenal v Liverpool and Inter v Juventus) and February 10 (Leverkusen v Bayern and Real Madrid v Girona)…

La Liga (Spain)

In the most surprising title charge since Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez fired Leicester to Premier League glory, Girona are leading La Liga with less than half of the season remaining. The Catalan club, owned by City Football Group, are top of the table with 52 points, one point ahead of Real Madrid, who have a game in hand.

With much of the last decade dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the trophy has frequently alternated between the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu, with occasional stops in the red and white half of Madrid at Atletico. If Girona were to finish as champions, it would be the first time since 2003-04 (Valencia) that a team other than Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid has won La Liga.

Even with Real Madrid breathing down their necks, last weekend’s display, a 5-1 win over Sevilla, shows Girona are resilient. Fourteen goals from the Ukraine international Artem Dovbyk makes him the league’s joint-top scorer, level with Jude Bellingham, and Aleix Garcia has emerged as one of La Liga’s most exciting midfielders.

If Girona go all the way, it will also represent the first time since Deportivo La Coruna in 1999-2000 that there has been a first-time winner of La Liga.

How the table looks

Bundesliga (Germany)

Despite Bayern Munich winning their 11th consecutive Bundesliga title last May, their dominance over German football is being tested.

Last year, it took a collapse from Borussia Dortmund, who went into the final day two points clear before being held at home to Mainz, for the Bavarians to win the league following their 2-1 victory over Cologne.

This year, Bayer Leverkusen (on 48 points) are Bayern’s most significant competitors for the title and they show no signs of slowing down. Bayern are seven points behind Leverkusen after losing 1-0 to Werder Bremen at the weekend but could close the gap to four points with a win at home to Union Berlin on Wednesday.

Leverkusen, now managed by former Bayern midfielder Xabi Alonso, are still unbeaten in the league, winning 15 of their 18 games. In their last two league matches, they have found a winning goal in stoppage time.

They will be without top goalscorer Victor Boniface, however, after the Nigeria striker suffered a groin injury training with his national team in Dubai before the Africa Cup of Nations. The 23-year-old requires corrective surgery and is expected to be out of action until April. Bayern, however, can rely on Harry Kane — the most prolific player in Europe’s top five leagues with 22 goals.

After drawing 2-2 with the reigning German champions in September, owing to an Exequiel Palacios penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Leverkusen’s meeting with Bayern on February 10 could be crucial in deciding the title.

How the table looks

Premier League (England)

Despite Mohamed Salah’s absence, Liverpool extended their lead at the top of the Premier League table on Sunday evening. Two goals each from Diogo Jota and Darwin Nunez helped them beat a Bournemouth side who had won five of their last six matches across all competitions. It puts Liverpool five points clear as they chase their second Premier League title under Jurgen Klopp.

But as demonstrated in a match-winning 25-minute cameo against Newcastle United earlier this month, Kevin De Bruyne’s return from injury makes Manchester City considerably stronger and it won’t be long before Erling Haaland is back, too. City are level with Arsenal and surprise contenders Aston Villa, albeit with a game in hand. Pep Guardiola’s side are well-positioned to make a run for the title in the second half of the season.

Across City’s last three titles, only Liverpool in 2021-22 gave them cause for serious concern in the season’s final weeks, with the title race coming down to the final day. With Liverpool one point behind, City came from two goals down to beat Villa 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium to seal their fourth league title of the Guardiola era.

Last year, Arsenal were their strongest challengers, leading the league for 248 days, but Mikel Arteta’s side faltered down the home stretch.

How the table looks

Serie A (Italy)

For much of the 2010s, Serie A was a procession. Juventus won nine straight titles from 2011-12 to 2019-20 and were often dominant in doing so. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli team came close to knocking them off their perch in the 2017-18 season, finishing on an impressive 91 points, but Juventus were still better, finishing with 95. Inter almost did the same in 2019-20, but they fell short by a point.

But that era is over — Serie A is the only elite European league where the title has been won by four different clubs in the past four seasons. Since Juventus’ most recent win in 2019-20, Inter, AC Milan and Napoli — for the first time since Diego Maradona inspired them to the 1990 title — have lifted the Scudetto.

This season, Juventus are back among the contenders and currently lead after 21 matches. Inter are only one point behind, though, with a game in hand. AC Milan are currently seven points behind the leaders and will likely need to beat Inter and Juventus when they face them in consecutive weeks in April if they are to breach the gap.

How the table looks

Ligue 1 (France)

It will come as no surprise, but Paris Saint-Germain are on their way to another Ligue 1 title. The 11-time top-flight champions are eight points clear and on a 13-match unbeaten run in the league — with 11 of those wins. The last team to beat them in the league are Nice, who currently sit second after starting the season strongly.

PSG have won nine of the last 11 French league titles, broken up by a Kylian Mbappe and Bernardo Silva-led Monaco in 2016-17 and Lille in 2020-21.

How the table looks

Super Lig (Turkey)

Fierce rivals Fenerbahce and Galatasaray are currently neck-and-neck at the top of the Turkish Super Lig, both on 54 points from 21 games.

After a drab 0-0 draw on Christmas Eve, they play the reverse fixture on the penultimate day of the league season. Like in Serie A, there have been four winners in the past four years — Galatasaray, Trabzonspor, Besiktas and Istanbul Basaksehir.

Primeira Liga (Portugal)

Benfica and Porto are Portugal’s most successful duo, but Sporting Lisbon are in pole position to crash the party for the second time in four years. They sit at the top of Liga Portugal after 18 of 34 games played, with Benfica one point behind.

Porto, who last won in 2021-22, are four points further back.


(Top photos: Getty Images)

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