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The 12 Days of Football: Two Title Races

Sunday 24th December 2017

On the second day of football/UEFA gave to me/two title races/and Antonio Conte and a back three

Welcome to the Twelve Days of Football's second installment. The series looks back on football in 2017, and where it has brought us.

Tis' the season to be jolly if you're Manchester City. Glad tidings and joyous results see the blue half of Manchester reveling in full holiday spirit, while the red half faces a blue, blue, blue Christmas. Early on, it appeared to be a tight race. Then Paul Pogba was injured. Next he was suspended just in time for the Manchester Derby. In between, United inexplicably managed to lose some matches they should have won. Meanwhile, Man City has demonstrated to one and all its quality. Pep Guardiola's elves are leading the table by quite some way. After 19 matches City have a double-digit lead on second-place United. The Sky Blues are the Premier League's only unbeaten team.

Other teams in the top seven include Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and yes Burnley, but there is quite a gap between City and the rest. Pep's team is averaging better than three goals per game. with a staggering 60 to date. Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus have combined for 32. Simultaneously, the Citizens are best in the Scrooge category, with just 12 goals given away. 

Man City have secured top spot for Christmas and New Year, not to mention Martin Luther King Jr's birthday and probably Presidents Day for its American supporters. This is proof how dominant the blue side of Manchester has been. It doesn't look like slowing, but there is plenty more work to be done. The main goal, of course, is to continue widening the gap on its arch-rival. 

With both Manchester managers competing for top spot in the Premier League, their former clubs in Spain are on a similar course. Barcelona are currently top, with a healthy 14-point lead over Real Madrid. The difference in La Liga is that there are other teams between the pair. After Atletico Madrid's Friday defeat, the Blaugrana are the Primera Division's sole undefeated side. Atleti are now nine behind in second. Valencia follows in third. Real is fourth. 

The Merengues faced the ideal opportunity to move third yesterday. Three points behind Valencia and level on goal difference, Zinedine Zidane's side would have cut Barcelona's lead to eight with a game in hand had they triumphed in the home El Clasico. Instead, Santiago Bernabeu fans watched in horror as Dani Carvajal drew red shortly following the hour, and less than ten minutes after Luis Suarez had given Barca a 1-0 lead. Lionel Messi then converted a penalty and Aleix Vidal added insult to injury time. It was not the response one expects from a great champion, especially when it is defending La Liga and two Champions League crowns. The toxic fallout has contaminated Zidane's infallible image with Madridistas to a potentially fatal extent. Amazing how two years of excellent work can be destroyed in 90 minutes.

In order to rescue the season, his reputation, and job, Zizou will likely focus on the Champions League in the New Year. Cristiano Ronaldo may have rediscovered his form to some degree before going silent against Barca, and he will be needed if Los Blancos are to rise from the ashes. 

However, it's Messi who will celebrate his Christmas with seasonal cheer. The little Argentine is leading his team to another successful season. Barcelona has bagged 45 goals in 16 games. Not quite City's pace, but not far behind. Messi has a third of the total. Luiz Suarez and Paulinho have teamed up to match his output. Ernesto Valverde has also paid attention to the back end. His side have conceded just seven goals this term.

Neither the Premier nor La Liga title race is close. Both seem formalities at this point. You have to go deep down the European pecking order to find a tight competition. Still, for each question answered, two more spring up in their place. Can Pep's City be the next Invincible? Can United get out of its own way to at least make a run at the noisy neighbours? Is Barcelona really better without Neymar? What will happen when the Brazilian's old and new clubs collide again in the Champions League? The last is not guaranteed to occur, yet it somehow seems inevitable, doesn't it?

All of this is the beauty of football. Even when you think you know what's happening and where matters are headed, you really don't. Enjoy your New Year, whatever it brings.

Jamie Kynaston

For my sins, I'm a season ticket holder at Stoke City, I have been proud to watch them for over 20 years. I follow most of the UK leagues and the major European ones too, and I've been told that I talk way too much about football.

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