We're Number Two!
As any Premier League fan will tell you when given stick for extolling their division’s virtues, there is more than one way to define competitive. Some will say it’s how a league’s best teams stack up against continental rivals. Others will cite playing aesthetic. For me it comes down to how many teams are in the mix for the title.
By that standard 2017-18 is shaping up as the least competitive European season in memory. Usually there are at least two teams in the hunt wherever you go. Currently, four of UEFA’s top five leagues are foregone conclusions. In January. Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, and Barcelona are all running away with their respective title races. Ironically six-time defending Serie A champion Juventus is not its typical dominant self, marking the Scudetto as the only prestigious title up for grabs. Yet even Lega Calcio is just a two-horse race with the Old Lady nipping at Napoli’s heels.
Dig deeper and it’s more of the same. Celtic (as usual) and Lokomotiv are eight points clear in the Scottish and Russian Premier Leagues. Beluga and Macallan all around! Club Brugge is 11 points free in the Jupiler League. PSV Eindhoven is five points up in the Eredivisie. Ajax might still make a run but AZ Alkmaar is eight back in third. Only Portugal, Turkey, Denmark, Greece, and Switzerland join Italy as countries with compelling title races.
In the Football League, the only close race is League One, where Wigan is just two points ahead of Shrewsbury Town. Wolves are tearing apart the Championship. Luton Town is four points to the good in League Two. Drop into non league football and Macclesfield is also four in front of Aldershot in the National League.
On the one hand we’ve been cultured to worship winners. Fans of the runaway clubs are revelling in the moment. They’re joyfully shouting, “We’re number one! We’re number one!”
No one gets excited over being number two. The pre-school definition for the term sticks with us into adulthood. Excusez mon francais but being number two is shite even if being number one isn’t a pisser.
Being the best is paramount whereas being the best of the rest is just embarrassing. And that’s too bad in terms of entertainment because there are some battles raging around Europe for those non-existent silver medals.
Here are the interesting ones.
Belgian Jupiler League
Like La Liga, the Jupiler League has long been the stomping ground for two clubs: Brugge and Anderlecht. Between them they hold 48 titles. This season Brugge will make it 49. Anderlecht is going through a Real Madrid moment however. They are 13 behind their rivals with an upstart blocking their path.
Charleroi is an old club, established in 1904, but it’s been a long miserable existence. The Zebras have never won the top flight. In fact, they’ve spent more than half their competitive life outside it. Premier League fans will remember West Brom’s up-and-down existence in the noughties. That’s been Charleroi in recent seasons. Even if they can’t catch Brugge, holding off Anderlecht, a side they’ve already beaten twice, will be akin to a title for them.
English Premier League
Even though there is some distance between clubs the stakes for the five teams not named Manchester City in the Prem’s top six are, to understate it, high. We’re talking money, prestige, and personal reputations.
For Jose Mourinho it’s definitely the latter. Although he hasn’t quite thrown in the towel on Pep Guardiola and City, the Portuguese has fully committed himself to a heated feud with Antonio Conte, whose Chelsea side is providing the most direct competition for second place.
Mou criticised the Italian’s pitch-side antics. Conte called pot-kettle-black, adding that senility might be affecting the Special One’s memory. Mourinho admitted the possibility but insisted he had never been nor would ever be implicated in match fixing. Just before the bell rang and the two combatants had to return to actually managing their squads, Conte called his rival “a little man.”
Finishing in either second or third matters little in terms of Champions League qualification. This battle is just bitterly personal. And as long as you’re not in the line of fire, handbags at ten paces is always good entertainment.
Liverpool is lodged between direct qualification to the Champions and Europa Leagues. Only, Philippe Coutinho’s unavoidable sale may have jarred the Reds loose from fourth place.
Tottenham and Arsenal are looking up with baited breath, hoping the Anfield mob takes a tumble towards them. With a more stable roster Spurs are better poised to capitalise. The Gunners must worry about losing Alexis Sanchez, although the Chilean appears ready to land about five miles to the southwest of his original Mancunian target. Rumours now have him now going to United, rather than City, to play for that "little man." However it all shakes out a great deal of money hangs in the balance for these three clubs vying for the final Champions League place.
Here we have the genuine Real Madrid moment. The defending Liga and Eruopean champion is drowning in the deep water aka fourth place. The club is so steeped in winning, second place is basically the relegation bubble.
Having been given a hall pass to play in the Club World Cup, Los Blancos have a game in hand on the clubs above them. Assuming they win it, keeping in mind that could very well make an ass of you and me considering how this campaign is going, Zinedine Zidane’s side would be just two behind Valencia and four off Atleti’s pace.
Diego Simeone now has Diego Costa to provide goals, at least after the naturalised Spaniard serves his ban for celebrating his first with the Wanda Metropolitano fans. Valencia won’t be a concern until the Bats prove otherwise.
All in all second place is doable for the Merengues. Is it enough to save Zizou’s job? Only if he patches up the leaky back line, wins the Champions League for a third time running, or club president Florentino Perez is visited by the ghost of Real Madrid Future.
Russian Premier League
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To paraphrase Jethro Tull old Yuri’s got the handle and the train won’t stop going, no way to slow down. Manager Yuri Semen has Lokomotiv eight points in front of the pursuit.
There is a great deal of pursuit however. Zenit and Spartak are level on points in second. Krasnodar is just a point behind the pair, CSKA only two. Due to the severe winter in the motherland, the final 12 match days will be compressed to allow time for the World Cup. The fur will fly as these four clubs attempt to scramble over one another to get at Lokomotiv.
The season doesn’t resume until March but it’s worth marking on your calendar.
|17||TSG Hoffenheim 1899||7||5||5||27||22||+5||26|
Russia has nothing on Germany this season when it comes to pursuit. The Bundesliga posse on Bayern Munich’s cold trail is seven strong.
Schalke is clearly out front, perhaps due to the fresh legs in the squad. Dominic Tedesco brought in eight new faces in the summer. So far the moves have paid off.
Below the Royal Blues four teams have massed on 28 points. Dortmund has found its stride under new boss Peter Stoger. Michael Schade’s young guns have Bayer Leverkusen shading the other two on goal difference. Leipzig didn’t start this campaign great guns like they did the last. Nonetheless they remain solidly in the hunt for a Champions League berth. Gladbach’s negative goal difference demonstrates how much it misses Andreas Christensen.
Two points behind the quartet you’ll find the Bundesliga’s managerial wunderkind Julian Nagelsmann. The 30-year-old tabbed by many as the next Bayern boss has Hoffenheim sniffing around the European places. Frankfurt are hanging in as well.
Seven clubs. Four points. Three Champions League slots. It’s a bookmaker’s dream.
The pack chasing Paris Saint-Germain is a thin one compared to those in the RPL and Bundesliga but people do say three is a crowd. As crowds go, this one is a fast-moving one in the bargain.
A huge deal was made of Monaco’s success in 2016-17. All the goals, the French title, and a deep Champions League warranted it.
As a result Lyon received short shrift when the praise was doled out. This was also a club sparkling with young talent. It made a deep run in the Europa League. When the season ended, OL lost its marquee player too: Alexandre Lacazette to Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe.
Both sides added burgeoning talent. Les Monagasques picked up Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht, which may offer a clue to the Belgian side’s aforementioned struggles. At the same time Jean Michel Aulas snatched up Mariano Diaz from Real Madrid to offset Lacazette’s absence. Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, and Bertrand Traore remain in place to support him. The result has been the two youth-oriented sides are merely a goal apart as Ligue 1’s second half kicks in.
Marseille isn’t a fresh-faced squad. As suits the city it calls home, OM has an element of grit and defiance in the squad. Evidence the return of Dmitri Payet. The quality isn’t in this side to match the other two. It doesn’t phase them. Experience and will carry the squad between Payet’s moments of brilliance. He took a couple knocks late in 2017, slowing him down. Given a short break over the holidays to heal up, it will be interesting to see how his season plays out.