Last week I talked about drama at the bottom end of the table, but now I want to focus on the top end of the table. While there is a lot of focus on who ends up at the top, there is also a huge battle to finish in a Champions League spot. The Champions League is, in my opinion, the greatest competition in the world. It started as a competition for league winners, and has expanded to include many teams from some top leagues. The amount of teams from each league depends on the UEFA coefficient for the league. The competition begins with a round-robin group stage of 32 teams. However, before this starts, there are three qualifying rounds and then a play-off round. In these rounds, the champions from many of the smaller nations play for a spot in the group stage. For the big 5 leagues that I have focused on, they are all given multiple spots in the competition. Spain, England, and Germany all get 4 teams in the competition. Italy, Portugal, and France all get 3 spots in the tournament. The race for these spots is very important for the clubs and worth a lot of money to each of them. While we watch the Round of 16 play out now, we realize why teams are desperate to get into this competition. A spot in this competition is the goal of most clubs and something that can make a season successful. With more and more of the title races becoming less and less entertaining as teams grow huge leads, the race for either fourth or third will be getting more and more exciting.
Here are the big 4/big 3 races in the big 5 leagues.
Serie A: Juventus and Roma look certain to qualify for the Champions League in the top 2 spots
3rd Place – Napoli (45), Lazio (40), Fiorentina (39)
Liga BBVA: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid all look certain to qualify for the Champions League
4th Place – Valencia (50), Sevilla (45), Villarreal (44)
Ligue 1: With three teams in the race for the title (Lyon, PSG, and Marseille), they all seem certain to also qualify for the Champions League. However, Marseille is just 7 points clear of Monaco, who have been making a late charge up the table and will cut that to only 4 points if they win their game in hand.
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg look certain to qualify in the top two spots which leaves two spots open for the following teams:
Moncehengladbach (37), Schalke (35), Augsburg (35), Bayer (33), Hoffenheim, 30, Werder (30)
English Premier League: Chelsea and Manchester City look to have a battle for top spot on the horizon, but should both easily qualify for the Champions League. The question now remains for the last two spots between these teams:
Arsenal (48), Manchester United (47), Southampton (46), Liverpool (45), Tottenham (44)
Champions League Preview
The last four matchups in the round of 16 kick off this week, and they start with a bang. On Tuesday, the Champions of England host the runners-up in Spain. Manchester City host Barcelona. This is a rematch from last year where Barcelona advanced on a 4-1 aggregate win. Manchester City have been building their team with the goal of becoming a big name in Europe. While they have had great success in England, this has not translated to Champions League. Can they change that this year? They will need to advance past the Round of 16 to ever get a reputation in Europe. Barcelona will need to answer their critics and get back to winning ways, as they lost this weekend. In the other game on Tuesday, Juventus will look to knock out Borussia Dortmund. They are similar to Manchester City, as they have recently struggled to make a splash in the latter rounds of this competition. While they have history in the competition, they have struggled since they returned to the Champions League in 2008-09. On Wednesday, Arsenal host Monaco. Both of these teams have been managed by Arsene Wenger. While he currently is the manager of Arsenal, he had a lengthy period of time at Monaco. While manager of Monaco, he won Ligue 1 and a Coupe de France. This is a big game for Arsenal, as they work to keep their great form going and hope to advance to the Quarter Finals. The other matchup is Bayer vs. Atletico Madrid. Last year’s runners up will attempt to have more success in Germany like they did last year en route to the final.
Did Barcelona look ahead to their Champions League clash this week and not give Malaga the credit they deserved? Malaga capitalized on a huge error from Barcelona and grabbed an early lead. They held on to this lead to snatch all three points from the Camp Nou in a 1-0 win. Barcelona had the chance to grab the top spot, but failed. Real Madrid then further punished Barcelona when they beat Elche 2-0 thanks to goals from Ronaldo and Benzema. Real now sit 4 points clear at the top, and they are now in the driver’s seat to win the title. Atletico Madrid kept pace with Real when they beat Almeria 3-0. Real Sociedad got a vital 3 points with a huge win over Sevilla 4-3. This puts them in the top half of the table. Sevilla’s loss, coupled with Valencia winning, means that the gap from 4th to 5th is now 5 points.
In Italy, the title race might be all but over as Juventus won on Friday 2-1 over Atalanta. The winning goal was scored by Pirlo with an absolutely beautiful strike. On Sunday, Roma drew 1-1 with Verona to extend Juve’s lead at the top to 9 points. This might be just two much for Roma to overcome. Empoli got a huge 3 points with a 3-0 win over Chievo. This puts them 7 points clear of Cagliari. Napoli won 2-0 today and they got some help from Torino when they drew 1-1 at Fiorentina. Lazio climbed back into the race for the top 3 with a huge win over Palermo. They now sit just 5 points behind Napoli.
The first team in the title race in Ligue 1 to take the field was PSG. They temporarily took top spot behind a strong 3-1 win over Toulouse. This gave them a 1 point advantage heading into Sunday, but Lyon were certain to make sure they didn’t stay at the top for too long. Lyon responded with a 1-0 win over Nantes that took them back on top. Marseille was last to take the field, and they were the only team to drop points. St. Etienne got the lead early in the second half, but two quick goals from Michy Batshuay gave Marseille the lead with 23 minutes to go. Marseille was unable to hold on to the lead and gave up a stoppage time goal to Mevlut Erding. The draw means they are now 4 points off the top and only 7 points above Monaco, who has a game in hand. Caen and Bastia got a huge win at the bottom end of the table.
In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich showed the world they can score as the pummeled Paderboen 6-0. Wolfsburg was able to keep pace with a 2-1 win, but it does seem like it is all for nothing as with 12 games remaining Bayern have an 8 point lead. The difference from 2nd to 3rd also seems to grow as Monchengladbach drew 1-1. Wolfsburg now sits 10 points clear of third place. However, from there the rest of the league is quite bunched up. The difference from 3rd place to the bottom of the table is just one more point than the distance from 3rd place to the top. Dortmund, who got a huge 3 points this weekend, are now just 10 points from the Champions League places having been on the bottom of the table just two weeks ago. It should be fascinating to watch as the table shifts and moves down the stretch, as it seems no one is safe outside of the top two.
The title race in England took a turn I don’t think many of us saw coming. Chelsea and Burnley drew 1-1. The game seemed to turn on what looked like a horrible tackle from by Ashley Barnes. It was probably deserving of a straight red card, but it was not called. What did happen was Matic, who was on the receiving end of the tackle, jumped off the ground and ran over and shoved Barnes to the ground. For his actions, Matic was shown a straight red. This gave Burnley a numerical advantage that they took advantage of and turned the tide of the game allowing them to score the equalizer. I do believe that Matic should have been sent off for his actions, but Barnes also deserved a red card for his part. Man City then stepped up to the plate and destroyed Newcastle 5-0. The lead at the top is now 5 points, and is very much game-on. Chelsea have a history of dropping points against teams they should not, and City have a history of coming back to win the title. The race for fourth place got even more interesting, as Liverpool despite being the second best team on the pitch, got a crucial 3 points in a huge match against Southampton. They now sit just 2 points behind United who lost 2-1 at Swansea City. Arsenal won 2-1 over Crystal Palace and Tottenham drew 2-2 to make the race for fourth very tight.
German Bundesliga – Bottom 2: Hertha Berlin (21 points), Stuttgart (18) – 16th Place: Freiburg (22) – In Battle: Dortmund (25), Mainz (25), Hamburg (24), Paderborn (23), Koln (25), and Hannover (26)
French Ligue 1 – Bottom 3: Evian Thonon Gaillard (26), Lens (22), Metz (22) – In Battle: Toulouse (28), Lorient (28), Stade de Reims (31), Caen (31), and Stade Rennes (31)
Italian Serie A – Bottom 3: Cagliari (20), Cesena (16), Parma (10) – In Battle: Atalanta (23), Chievo Verona (24), and Hellas Verona (25)
Spanish Liga BBVA – Bottom 3: Granada (19), Levante (19), Cordoba (18) – In Battle: Elche(23), Almeria(23), Deportivo La Coruna (24),
English Premier League – Bottom 3: Aston Villa (22), Burnley (22), Leicester City (18) – In Battle: QPR (22), Hull (26), Sunderland (25), West Brom (27), Crystal Palace (27), Everton (28)