Have the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie a Already Been Decided?
As Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga look forward to recommencing after their respective winter breaks and the Premier League overcomes the hurdle of the busy festive period, a pattern has emerged in all four of Europe's major leagues.
Each has a runaway leader going into the second half of the season.
Manchester Utd hold a seven-point lead over nearest rivals Manchester City. Juventus are eight points clear of second-place Lazio. In Spain, the tour-de-force that is Barcelona is nine points ahead of Ateltico Madrid and 16 ahead of fierce rivals Real Madrid. And in the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich are nine points clear of nearest contenders Leverkusen.
So, with such intimidating leads built up by the turn of the year, have all four leagues already been decided?
Let's consider the Bundesliga first. Bayern Munich have lost only once this season—the surprise home defeat to Bayer Leverkusen—and are riding high on confidence. From their winter training camp in Doha, coach Jupp Heynckes told the official Bundesliga website that "FC Bayern have never played such modern and attractive football," and that they are "incredibly determined to win the league".
Captain Philipp Lahm concurs, saying "we will probably not be stopped" (via Goal.com) in the matter-of-fact tone of the Terminator.
Lahm and Heynckes are probably right. The Bundesliga has been a tight affair at the halfway point in the past few campaigns, but in the past decade, Bayern have enjoyed a six-point lead at the winter break twice (2002-03 and 2005-06), and won both times.
They also have a tendency to push even further ahead in the second half of the season. In 2002-03, they increased their six-point new year lead to 16 points by the end of the season. In 1998/99, their eight-point lead over Leverkusen widened to 15 points by the conclusion.
Over in Spain, Barcelona are currently enjoying the same nine-point cushion as Bayern in their respective title race. Thanks in no part to the outstanding performances of Leo Messi, The Guardian's La Liga expert Sid Lowe awarded the season to the Catalan giants before Christmas. Pro Soccer Talk called it even earlier than that.
Barca seem unstoppable because they almost certainly are. They remain undefeated and have claimed 49 points from an available 51. The only time a Spanish side has held such a big lead over the winter break in the past 10 years was 2004-05, when the Blaugrana were 10 points clear at Christmas (although Madrid closed that gap to four points by the end).
Things get a little more interesting in Serie A. Even though Juventus are playing superbly and racing eight points clear, the chasing pack are still confident. Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic believes the Nerazzurri can close the nine-point gap. Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella says his side are ready to pounce when the Old Lady slips up. Even under-performing AC Milan seem to believe there is a slim glimmer of hope for them!
This is because the runaway winter leader in Italy does not always come out on top in the end. In 2003-04, Roma were six points ahead coming into the second half of the season. They ended up losing by 11 points to a resurgent Milan side who were in third place at the break.
In 2002-03, Juventus were languishing in fifth place at Christmas behind Chievo, Lazio and both Milan sides. They ended up winning the scudetto by seven points.
More often than not, however, the winter leader in Italy prospers. In five of the last ten seasons, Inter Milan have been leading by a margin of at least seven points at the break and have gone on to win.
On to the Premier League, where Manchester Utd have won ugly on many occasions to go seven points clear of their city neighbors in the New Year. Vincent Kompany believes the gap can be closed, while Arsene Wenger insists it is not a two-horse race. Roberto Mancini, meanwhile, conceded defeat so many times last season that it's difficult to take anything from his current opinion.
In the past 10 seasons, the leaders at the turn of the year have failed to win the league on four occasions (Liverpool in 2008-09; Arsenal in 2007-08; Manchester Utd in 2003-04; Arsenal in 2002-03).
However, none of those teams had a lead of more than three points on New Year's Day. In fact, the only side in the past 10 seasons who enjoyed a bigger lead at the halfway point was Manchester Utd in 2006-07. They were six points clear at the beginning of January and won their 16th title by six points in May.
In conclusion, the statistics suggest the races in Spain and Germany are over. There may be another turn in the story in Italy, while there's a (very) slim chance that the Premiership could go down to the wire.
Those looking for a close title race, meanwhile, should turn their attention to Ligue 1. With the 20th round of games due to kick off next weekend, the league is a three-way tie between PSG, Lyon and Marseille. There's plenty of drama left at the top of the table in France.
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