We’re getting to the point in European Football where the domestic leagues tend to be wrapped up: Bayern Munich and Manchester United have already respectively claimed the Bundesliga and Premier League, while Juventus and FC Barcelona both had the opportunity to claim the Serie A and La Liga titles this weekend. However, three of these potential (or already-crowned) winners saw their weekends spoiled, while the true action occurred either at the periphery of the Champions League, or in the vicious and entertaining relegation battles heating up in all the leagues.
The Party(s) Spoiled
In the Premier League, already-crowned champions Manchester United had the opportunity to rub salt in the wounds of their old rival Arsenal FC. Not only have Man U now claimed their fifth Premier League title since Arsenal last won a trophy of any sort, but they did so relying overwhelmingly on Robin Van Persie, the former Arsenal superstar and Club Captain who left the club this past summer. Rather than exploit the opportunity to record a cathartic victory at the Emirates, both teams were limited to a draw, with Theo Walcott’s fourth-minute strike cancelled out by an RVP penalty in the dying minutes of the first half. Other than that, it was a stunningly boring game.
Had they been victorious over an Athletic Bilbao side reeling from a disastrous season (and had Real Madrid lost – more on that later), FC Barcelona could have finally claimed their La Liga title after a dominant season in the Spanish division. However, Barca have struggled to finish off Bilbao at the San Mames in recent years, and this match -the last ever played between the two teams at the stadium the Basques call ‘The Cathedral’ – was a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw (the identical scoreline to last year’s Separatist Derby in the San Mames) that saw Lionel Messi come off the bench to score an absolutely ridiculous goal before Ander Herrera equalized in injury time in the second half. Real Madrid’s victory in the Madrid Derby also ensured that Barcelona will have to wait another week before clinching the title in a season where they have led right from week one.
Italy was a similar story, though Juventus managed to win their derby, defeating Torino 0-2 on the back of goals from midfielders Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio. However, Napoli’s 3-0 victory over bottom-of-the-table Pescara meant that Juventus have to wait until next week to have the chance at mathematically guaranteeing their 29th (31st if you’re Alex Fawcett) Scudetto Trophy. Should Juventus and Napoli claim an equal number of points next week, the trophy will be Juve’s once more – Conte’s second in two years in charge of the club.
The Periphery gets (really) interesting
The periphery of the Champions League was much more interesting in those three leagues. In the Premier League, a victory for Chelsea and draws for Tottenham and Arsenal mean that the race for the final two 2013-14 UCL spots continues to be extremely tight, and will likely be down to the wire. Three teams are within two points of one another, and the quest for top European TV revenues will continue to be entertaining. If the gods are kind, Chelsea will finish fifth.
The Madrid Derby was stunningly awful – a vicious, dirty, nasty, thoroughly boring game where nothing of interest happened: Atletico looked set to win their first derby since 1999, and then didn’t. The real brilliance came in 4th v. 5th – Real Sociedad v. Valencia, which was the sight of an outrageously entertaining 4-2 win in San Sebastian for Sociedad, all but sealing their Champions League Place a mere three years after they regained their spot in the Primera Division. The fact that they have done so predominantly with youth academy players (except for the excellent Carlos Vela and a handful of other non-Basques) and while playing delightfully entertaining football only vindicates this result. For a team that started the season on the receiving end of a 5-1 hammering at the Camp Nou, it’s been a pretty good turnaround. With Malaga still banned from European competition next season, the Europa League spots are currently occupied by Valencia, Real Betis, and Rayo Vallecano. Rayo’s played exciting, high-intensity stuff all year; hopefully their reward is a trip to Europe.
Serie A also saw some excellent football on the European periphery. AS Roma battered Sienna 4-0 at the Stadio Olimpico, with an excellent hat trick by Osvaldo. Coupled with Lazio’s recent stuttering troubles and Inter Milan’s loss to Palermo (coupled with the loss of Javier Zanetti to a nasty Achilles Tendon injury), Roma moved back into European placing for the first time in six weeks.
Relegation gets (extremely) interesting
This time of year also sees the relegation battles begin to get nasty. For QPR and Reading, the best they could manage was a stunningly dull 0-0 draw that saw them both get relegated as punishment for the terrible football they have played all year. Were the gods kind, quinessentially English side Stoke City would also be sent down as payment for their use of the 9-0-1 formation in the last four seasons. Alas, this was a weekend where high-intensity exciting football at the bottom of the table suffered. Sunderland – a rejuvenated side under the ever-crazy Paolo Di Canio (English football has been waiting for years for a character like him) – were totally crushed by Aston Villa, who have no surely secured their stay in the top flight for another year. Unfortunately, Wigan’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham – coupled with this – means that they are almost certainly going down at this point. Shame; Wigan play good football, and Martinez’s unorthodox 3-4-3 is superbly entertaining. It’ll likely still be down to the wire, but Wigan are probably going down. I’ll hold out hope for a Stoke City collapse in the meantime. The 6-0 hiding that Newcastle suffered at Anfield also means that their safety can’t be completely ruled out either.
La Liga’s relegation battles are also shaping up to be quite interesting. Deportivo La Coruna, once secure in their bottom-of-the-table misery, have suddenly found themselves on the back of points in six or seven consecutive games, pulling them up into 17th. However, after Zaragoza’s victory over Mallorca and Celta Vigo’s own points-grab this weekend, they’re a single point in front. Having dipped into the Relegation zone (which means financial ruin for teams in Spain moreso than perhaps in any other division), Zaragoza are now desperately struggling to escape it. Mallorca are miserable, and probably going down – their run of remaining fixtures isn’t kind either. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Athletic Bilbao’s thoroughly miserable season could also end in the R-Word – if it does, Real Madrid and Barcelona will remain as the only teams never relegated in La Liga.
Serie A is also pretty interesting. Pescara continue to be terrible, while Palermo managed a narrow win over an Inter Milan team in full collapse. Sienna’s massive 4-0 loss to Roma means they stay as relegation contenders as well.
Odds and ends.
It has been almost seven weeks since either Palermo or Chelsea fired a manager. This must be some kind of record.
Neymar is going to Barcelona. Or Manchester City, or Bayern Munich, or Man U, or Real Madrid, or pretty much anywhere that’s a football club that makes a decent amount of money. These rumours won’t go away.