by IANS |
London, Jan 10 (IANS) The 2021-22 season has reached the halfway stage in the top four football leagues -- Bundesliga, Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga. Some of the title races look well on their way to being wrapped up already, while in others, the battle seems much more closely fought.
As the battles gather pace, here's an analysis of the standings in four top leagues across Europe:
English Premier League (Favourites: Manchester City)
Pep Guardiola's incredible Manchester City machine seems to already have one hand on the title, having a 10-point lead over second-placed Chelsea, who sit at 43 points.
Last year, City won the Premier League and even made it to the Champions League final, only to fail at the last hurdle in Europe. But what is important is that this version of the team maybe even better as they haven't lost any of their star players and have gained significantly with the blockbuster signing of Jack Grealish for 100 million euros.
What makes City's current success especially impressive is that their marquee signing has hardly played, having only had 13 full starts, showing the depth of the squad, who have multiple world-class players across pretty much every position. Even considering the strength of the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea, it's difficult to see anyone knocking off City from the top spot.
Other Contenders: Liverpool and Chelsea
Last year, Liverpool barely made it into the top four because of an unfortunate rash of injuries to their center-backs and people were questioning whether it may be the time for the Reds to move on from manager Jurgen Klopp, citing possible burnout as the reason for last year's mediocrity. All those critics have been silenced this season as Liverpool have simply been incredible, racking up 52 goals in 20 games behind only City.
The return of Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip from injury has seen the defence revitalised; on the opposite end, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota have been equally impressive, with Salah, in particular, shining brightly, as on his current form he has a very legitimate claim of being European club football's best attacker this season.
Incumbent Champions League holders Chelsea FC started off the season looking like the favourites to win the title, with strong performances by goalkeeper Edouard Mendy seeing them top the table.
Though their form has stuttered since then, they continue to impress: they have conceded the second-fewest goals and scored the third most in return, with their German mastermind Thomas Tuchel evolving his tactics this season to get the best out of wing-backs Ben Chilwell and Reece James.
It is a testament to the strength of the League that all three of these contenders can be considered among the top five European teams, showing that even though the League may seem to be over, with teams of this quality anything is possible.
Bundesliga (Favourites: Bayern Munich)
To say that Bayern are favourites would be quite an understatement as not only are the German giants the record holders with 31 league title wins, but have won the last-nine Bundesliga titles in a row.
Managerial wunderkind Julian Nagelsmann has not made drastic tactical changes to what his predecessor Hansi Flick was doing, but the few changes he has made have been extremely well-thought-out, with the biggest being the shifting of Leroy Sane from the right to the left-wing. It has seen the German speedster hit new heights in a Bayern shirt.
Bayern also have a striker whom many consider being the world's best. Robert Lewandowski has already scored a whopping 20 goals in only 18 games. Though the gap between Bayern and second-placed Dortmund is a not-insurmountable five points, it is hard to look past them as most likely winners of this year's competition.
Other Contenders: Borussia Dortmund and Hoffenheim
Though Borussia Dortmund lost their star, Jadon Sancho, to Manchester United, their results in league play remain unaffected as they sit on 37 points with Erling Haaland, in particular, going from strength to strength. The young Norwegian has notched up an admirable tally of 13 goals and five assists from only 11 starts.
While the team looks positive on the attacking end, the main sticking point is their leaky defence. They have conceded 28 goals in 18 games so far. Veteran defender Mats Hummels has come under heavy fire for his lacklustre performances lately. Only if they sort their backline out can they prevent their rivals Bayern from wrapping up a 10th straight title victory.
Hoffenheim have been a surprise package this season. After all, in the last season, they finished only 11th, sitting comfortably in the midtable. This year, they find themselves surprisingly in third place. If they are to pull off what would be a monumental upset by winning the league, they will no doubt look to their talismanic striker Andrej Kramaric, who has been their standout performer for the last few seasons.
Though he has not hit the goal-scoring heights he usually does Kramaric's their top provider with seven assists. If the goals start coming as well, the implausible may seem less plausible, game by game.
Serie A (Favourites: Inter)
Last year's title winners, Inter were expected to take a step backward this season as they lost key players in Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi as well as manager Antonio Conte. So far, though, these absences have not been felt at all, as Inter sit on top of the Serie A rankings. The missing players have been replaced by smart acquisitions, notably Edin Dzeko and Hakan Calhanoglu, who have both been immense so far.
Inter's main advantage over their rivals is their strength in depth as they can call on Joaquin Correa to change the game and though their lead is only slight, sitting just one point above AC Milan, they do have a game in hand over their rivals and with a keen tactician in Simeone Inzaghi at the helm, it looks like they will go home with the trophy once again.
Other Contenders: AC Milan and Napoli
AC Milan have been plagued with severe bad luck as a result of constant injuries to their key players. Yet, despite that, they are only one point adrift of league leaders Inter, which shows not only the strength in depth they have but also the team spirit that coach Stefano Pioli has implemented: the squad is not so reliant on any one individual.
The team's resilience is further demonstrated by the fact that it lost star players in Hakan Calhanoglu and Gianluigi Donnarumma this season, but haven't dropped off their levels and may have even improved despite their departures.
Up until recently, Napoli was on top of the league with the arrival of new coach Luciano Spaletti galvanising the side. They now look very different from what they were last season, despite not doing many signings. Napoli play aesthetically pleasing football under Spaletti and this gets the best out of their talented offensive players such as Lorenzo Insigne and breakout star Victor Osimhen.
An injury to star striker Osimhen derailed their strong start, but even then Napoli can call on the club's record scorer Dries Mertens for backup, and though they may trail Inter by six points, they have enough firepower to compete with just anybody.
Special mention needs to be made of record Serie A holders Juventus, who look a shadow of their former dominant selves, as they are already 11 points behind the league leaders halfway through the season.
La Liga (Favourites: Real Madrid)
This year was expected to be transitional for Real as they lost their long-term centre-backs Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos as well as their iconic coach Zinedine Zidane, yet it has not panned out that way at all. New coach Carlo Ancelotti has got the very best out of Real's attackers, as Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior have terrorised La Liga's defences throughout the season, ratcheting up 29 goals and 11 assists between them.
This fiery attack, combined with the world-class midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Luka Modric, gives Real a combination of flair and steel that no other Spanish team seems to have at present.
Other Contenders: Sevilla and Real Betis
Sevilla have consistently been the other guy to La Liga's big three of Atletico, Barcelona, and Real. But with the relatively poor form of Atleti and Barca, Sevilla have taken the opportunity to bounce on their rivals wobbles as they are currently placed second.
Their success is built on the fact that they are adept at keeping the opposition out of the net as they have conceded only 13 goals so far, which is quite comfortably the least of all La Liga teams so far. While their defence is rock solid as a whole, the standout is 23-year-old Jules Kounde, whose strong performances have seen him attract the attention of Europe's elite.
The French centre-back may be young, but his performances are that of a player much more older, and if Sevilla do pull off the upset, they will need him to be at his absolute best.
Betis sit in third place, but they are quite far off from both Sevilla and Real Madrid, as they have 33 points compared with 41 and 49 collected by Sevilla and Real, respectively. This is not to take away from how impressive they have been as coach Manuel Pellegrini is building on his strong performance last season to elevate them to an entirely new level.
Though Betis are an underdog team, they do not play like one as they play proactive attacking football with Winger Juanmi scoring more goals than any non-Real Madrid player.
Alongside Juanmi, they have the silky playmaker Nabil Fekir, who has been a joy to watch all season, combining smooth dribbling with precise passing to completely bamboozle opposition defenders.
The other members of La Liga's big three have not been up to the mark so far this season. Last year's winners Atletico are just outside the Champions League, having been placed fifth, while the mighty FC Barcelona are right behind them at sixth. The absence of these two in the title race gives an air of inevitability about Los Blancos wrapping the whole thing up.