Predicting the Top 3 in Each of Europe's 10 Biggest Leagues
With Europe's top leagues set to get back underway later this month, now seems as good a time as any to make a few early predictions about how the various title races might pan out.
In some leagues, you do not have to look far to spot an obvious title winner. In others, a host of teams will reasonably consider themselves to have a chance of winning it all come next May.
Here we make a few early predictions about the likely top three in each of Europe's 10 major leagues.
Premier League (England)
2. Manchester City
Is this the most open Premier League title race in recent memory? It might not be excessive to suggest that five teams could realistically top the league this season, making it maddeningly difficult (especially with two weeks still to go before games get underway) to pick apart the differences between the various contenders and pretenders.
Chelsea seem to have the backing of the majority of observers, encouraged by summer transfer activity that has seen them strengthen a number of key areas. There now appears to be no obvious weakness in Jose Mourinho's squad, and if Diego Costa proves to be the prolific striker most expect, the Blues will be hard to overcome.
However, as champions, Manchester City will surely expect to be there or thereabouts once again.
Manuel Pellegrini has also strengthened his squad, but after lucking into the title somewhat last season (realistically, Liverpool or Chelsea should have finished stronger), questions remain about Pellegrini's ability to inspire the team—especially now that the competition is stronger than ever. Still, if Sergio Aguero is fit, they will surely be too good to drop out of the top three.
That leaves Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool vying for third and fourth. At this stage, everyone will have a subjective opinion, but one suspects Manchester United still have reforming to do before they are ready to compete for the top three. Liverpool will surely experience a drop-off as they adapt to life without Luis Suarez (and the players bought to replace him adapt to new surroundings).
That leaves Arsenal. If the Premier League lost Suarez in the summer, then perhaps it gained another star in Alexis Sanchez. If the Chilean hits the ground running, Arsenal have the firepower to challenge anyone in the league. Their mental strength, of course, will remain a concern.
La Liga (Spain)
1. Real Madrid
3. Atletico Madrid
In contrast to the Premier League, La Liga looks easier to call than it has in a long time.
Champions Atletico Madrid have been picked apart by the vultures during the offseason, and while they have bought impressively, it is surely too much to expect them to pull off the same trick twice. Third might be the best they can hope for, although it remains to be seen whether the greater stability enjoyed by the likes of Athletic Bilbao might enable them to sneak ahead.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have a new manager overseeing things, with Luis Enrique tasked with bringing back the good times. In a way, Los Cules are also hoping lightning will strike twice—that Enrique will prove Pep Guardiola Mk II and guide the side to immediate glory. That will not be easy, however, and Enrique has work to do to find a system that fits Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez adequately.
That leaves Real Madrid, who floundered at the end of the league campaign last time out but look primed to dominate this time. Carlo Ancelotti is a master of fostering a positive team spirit, and with James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos added to the mix, his squad is the envy of any club in the world. It would almost be a shock if they did not win the league this season.
1. Bayern Munich
2. Borussia Dortmund
Champions by 19 points last term and having added their nearest rivals' best player in the summer, Bayern Munich might walk away with the Bundesliga title once again—probably with Robert Lewandowski scoring a hatful of goals.
Borussia Dortmund will struggle to adequately replace Lewandowski, although they should have the talent and depth to finish second once again as long as Marco Reus' current injury problems do not become a longer-term issue.
Third place, meanwhile, promises to be another enthralling battle between Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg. The latter side will be hungry to make amends after narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification last term, and with Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings, they might just have the talent to pull it off.
Plus, it would not exactly be imaginative to predict the exact same top three as last season, would it?
Serie A (Italy)
The departure of Antonio Conte in the summer has really opened up the title race in Italy, rendering Juventus far from the unassailable champions they once seemed. With grave doubts surrounding the ability of Massimiliano Allegri to conjure up the same level of performance from his players as Conte did, few are confident about Juventus' chances of a fourth straight title—especially if Arturo Vidal or Paul Pogba leaves before the transfer window closes.
That opens the door for Napoli and Roma, who have both been building toward this moment for a number of seasons. Roma were the strongest challengers to Juventus last season, and having strengthened considerably in the summer, they seem to have a squad to genuinely rival their Turin nemesis this term. It remains to be seen how the additional impact of Champions League football affects their domestic form, however.
Like Roma's Rudi Garcia, Napoli's Rafa Benitez knows what it takes to win a league title—and he too has strengthened noticeably in the summer. It might come down to how the two managers juggle their various responsibilities, although Garcia seems to have marginally better options available to him.
Roma to win the title, with Napoli second in a close three-way battle with a subpar Juventus would seem a reasonable prediction.
Ligue 1 (France)
1. Paris Saint-Germain
2. Olympique Marseille
3. AS Monaco
We know, we know—tipping Paris Saint-Germain to win the league in France is a ballsy move. But we're happy to put our money where our mouths are on that one, as we are confident that Laurent Blanc's side can overcome the doubters and emerge victorious once again.
Behind PSG, it will be interesting to see which sides step up to the challenge. Monaco were second last season but have lost more talent than they have acquired so far in the summer, potentially opening up the race to a number of other teams. Olympique Marseille, Olympique Lyon, Lille and Saint-Etienne will all surely harbour ambitions of finishing in the top three this season.
Perhaps Marseille have the edge in that regard if coach Marcelo Bielsa can continue his track record of dragging elevated performances out of his players. Bielsa is taking over a squad of underachieving potential stars, so it could be a match made in heaven at the Stade Velodrome.
Beyond that, it would be nice to see Lyon's crop of talented youngsters enjoy a consistent campaign, while Lille will fancy their chances of repeating last season's third-place finish. But perhaps Monaco will have just enough to edge out their rivals, especially if they keep hold of a fit-again Radamel Falcao. That is far from a certainty, however.
1. PSV Eindhoven
For the first time in their history, Ajax won the Dutch title for the fourth time in succession last season, cementing Frank de Boer's status as one of the most promising young managers in European football.
That remarkable achievement underlines not only the extent of Ajax's domination in recent times but also the historical unlikelihood of that run being extended to five.
It is for this reason—as much as any assessment of the relative strengths of different squads—that we anticipate a drop-off this season. It is hard to keep winning titles season after season. As Spain proved this summer, eventually there will be a slight drop-off and a hungrier side will knock you off your perch.
That could well be PSV, who have slowly accumulated a squad of players of impressive ability and potential. Fred Rutten has a lot of options at his disposal, and he should be able to guide them above Ajax in what will still surely be a very close title race (they almost always are in the Netherlands).
The rest of the league is likely to be closely fought, but perhaps Twente have the talented attacking players to hold off the challenge of last year's runners-up, Feyenoord—who will perhaps drop off after selling some of their star academy graduates this summer.
Primeira Liga (Portugal)
3. Sporting Lisbon
Another league that looks increasingly difficult to call, especially after many of the top sides experienced overhauls in the summer transfer market, with a few deals surely still to come.
Benfica were the class of the league—and one of the best sides in Europe—last season, but they lost arguably five of their very best players (Ezequiel Garay, Guilherme Siqueira, Rodrigo, Lazar Markovic, Jan Oblak) in the offseason. The club have reacted by buying a number of young talents, but who they will integrate into the squad is very much a doubt.
Porto have been in the shadow of their archrivals in recent seasons, but the turmoil at the club might give them a chance to capitalise. They have added some talented players in the summer—Oliver Torres, Adrian Lopez, Casemiro, Bruno Martins Indi—and if they can keep hold of Juan Quintero, they may just have the best squad in the league.
Sporting Lisbon are the wild-card option. Second last season, they are fighting to retain some of their key players (most notably, Marcos Rojo and William Carvalho). If they do keep them, they can be a threat for the title, but it is surely doubtful whether they can usurp both of their familiar foes.
Super Lig (Turkey)
After the disappointment of the Roberto Mancini reign, the pressure is on Cesare Prandelli to restore Galatasaray to the top of the Turkish pyramid. With the wealth of players at his disposal, the Italian has little excuse for failing in that regard.
Fenerbahce's league hopes will be bolstered by the fact that they are banned from European competition this season, but it will still take an impressive effort for Ersun Yanal's side to edge out their age-old rivals once again.
Once more, it would seem probable the Istanbul sides will complete a sweep of the top three.
Premier League (Russia)
1. Zenit St Petersburg
2. CSKA Moscow
3. Spartak Moscow
After missing out on the title in narrow fashion last season, Andre Villas-Boas will be pressured to deliver the title in his first full season at Zenit. Having strengthened notably in the offseason, the Portuguese should have the talent at his disposal to deliver in that aim.
Beyond Zenit, it would seem to be a battle between the various Moscow sides for the remaining positions inside the top three. CSKA have the pedigree and the quality, while Spartak may find themselves rejuvenated by talented new manager Murat Yakin.
Premier League (Scotland)
Yes, we know tipping Celtic for the title is every bit as bold as the PSG prediction earlier in the piece, but come back to us at the end of the season, eh? After winning the title by 29 points last season, Ronny Deila could be a worse boss than Ron Manager and the Bhoys would still probably walk away with the title.
The battle for second place is really about fighting over the scraps, but back Aberdeen to usurp Motherwell this time around, with Rangers only a season away from (hopefully) restoring the Scottish top flight to a fair-ish fight.