Don’t look now, but after years of one-sided champions across the majority of Europe’s “big five” leagues — English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, Spanish Primera Division and French Ligue 1 — we’re staring at the very real scenario of new titleholders almost across the board. With the exception of Germany, where Bayern Munich look favorites to win a remarkable ninth straight Bundesliga crown, the incumbents in England (Liverpool), Spain (Real Madrid), France (Paris Saint-Germain, winners of eight in nine) and Italy (Juventus, winners of nine straight) are all under serious threat of being surpassed in 2020-21.
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How did we get here, and how will things play out over the second half of the season? ESPN’s James Olley, Julien Laurens, Stephan Uersfeld, Sid Lowe and Tom Hamilton break down the state of play in each of the “big five,” assessing the strength of the defending champs, the threat of the challengers and predicting who will rule by the end of the 2020-21 campaign.
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– Defending champions: Liverpool
– League leaders: Manchester City
– Top four: Man City (47 points after 21 games), Man United (44 points/22 games), Leicester City (42 points/22 games), Liverpool (40 points/22 games)
Case for the incumbent: The blip that began at the end of December has developed into a serious slump that threatens to derail Liverpool’s Premier League title defence altogether. Sunday’s visit of leaders Manchester City is the biggest game of the season by some distance, and a win for Pep Guardiola’s side would take Man City 10 points clear of the champions with a game in hand.
It would be too early to suggest the gap is insurmountable given that the Reds have 15 games remaining, but Jurgen Klopp’s side currently looks incapable of rediscovering the consistency required to retain the title from that position. Liverpool beat Tottenham 3-1 on Jan. 28 to end a run of five league games without a win, a spell in which they failed to even score a goal as problems mounted at both ends of the pitch.
Liverpool’s defensive crisis is well-documented, with Klopp naming 12 different centre-back pairings in 22 league games, but that problem was compounded by their fabled attacking trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah enduring a collective barren period. Klopp has tinkered with his tactical setup in an attempt to address this imbalance, seemingly finding the answer after tinkering with his midfield — they backed up that win at Spurs with victory against West Ham. Yet next time out, Liverpool lost at home to Brighton, suggesting a lasting solution is yet to be found to their attacking problems, and it remains to be seen whether their defensive issues have been addressed off it too.
Liverpool’s need for a centre-back has been obvious ever since the knee injury that likely ended Virgil van Dijk’s season. The Reds never replaced Dejan Lovren, who was allowed to leave for Zenit St. Petersburg last summer. Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are all out for lengthy periods, prompting the club into a deadline-day scramble to sign Ben Davies from Preston and Ozan Kabak, initially on loan, from Schalke.
Davies, 25, has no Premier League experience and Kazak is 20 years old. At least one of them must settle quickly before it is too late.
Case for the challengers: League leaders Manchester City look ominous, albeit not in the way many would expect. These days, they’re relying on a superb defensive record rather than overwhelming teams with devastating attacking football. They have kept nine clean sheets in the past 11 matches as John Stones’ renaissance, aligned with an impressive debut season from Ruben Dias, has formed the foundation for a push to occupy the top spot, and with a game in hand on those immediately below them.
Manchester United‘s record-equalling 9-0 thrashing of Southampton on Tuesday was a timely fillip after dropping four points against Sheffield United and Arsenal. United must improve their record against the traditional “Big Six” if they are to maintain their challenge. They have taken four points from a possible 18 in big games so far this season — the lowest tally any of the previous 10 champions managed is 16 against their most immediate rivals.
Leicester City are just five points behind City after another fine season in which James Maddison and Harvey Barnes have added further potency to an attack led by the evergreen Jamie Vardy. However, there are unavoidable questions over their durability given that from the beginning of February last season, they won just three of their final 14 Premier League games to fall out of the top four on the final day of the season. (And Vardy is still working his way back to fitness following hernia surgery in January.)
New Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel has already written off their title chances given they are 11 points behind City, forcing the Blues — and, by extension, Tottenham — to lower their sights on a top-four place.
Prediction: Manchester City have crept back to the summit despite being forced to play without a recognised forward. Sergio Aguero will return in the coming weeks following injury problems and issues related to COVID-19, while Gabriel Jesus marked his own comeback with the winning goal against Sheffield United and the opener at Burnley.
Liverpool will still threaten if they can rediscover the consistency that took them to the title last season, but Manchester City look the safer bet. The advantage is, of course, reduced considerably without fans, but Pep Guardiola will welcome the fact that they will play Tottenham, United and Chelsea all at home between now and May. — James Olley
The ESPN FC panel talk Bayern Munich positioning themselves to sign RB Leipzig’s Upamecano in the summer.
– Defending champions: Bayern Munich
– League leaders: Bayern Munich
– Top four: Bayern (45 points from 19 games), RB Leipzig (37 points/19 games), Wolfsburg (35 points/19 games), Eintracht Frankfurt (33 points/19 games)
Case for the incumbent: Never in Bundesliga history has there been a team more dominant than Bayern Munich. They’ve run away with the past eight championships, sometimes winning them as early as March, which they did 2014 in Pep Guardiola’s first season as manager.
Having successfully managed a difficult transition when long-serving wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery left the club in 2019, they’ve not stopped winning since Hansi Flick’s appointment as the club’s manager toward the end of 2019. It’s no different this term, either: Robert Lewandowski is banging in the goals and is on course to break Gerd Muller’s historic record of 40 strikes in one season. The Thomas Muller revival is real, too — the free-floating attacker has never looked better, and with Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka dazzling in midfield, they don’t lack for quality where it counts.
Bayern have averaged three goals per game, which makes their defensive struggles look less concerning. Sometimes their high press has seen them caught out of position, but regardless, the 26 goals conceded this term pale compared to the attacking return. Even when not at their best, their depth and individual quality are usually enough to overcome most domestic opponents. With 15 games remaining, they lead Leipzig by seven points, have the vastly superior goal difference and will not be stopped.
Case for the challengers: With Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach all trailing Bayern by 13 points and VfL Wolfsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, two teams still sticking around in the top four, not in a genuine position to challenge at the top, RB Leipzig are the only candidate left to mount an unlikely title challenge.
However, this season they have not been able to overcome the departure of Timo Werner, who is struggling to adapt to the Premier League this season. Instead of signing loanee Patrik Schick to a permanent deal, they opted to bring in Norway attacker Alexander Sorloth as Werner’s replacement, though he has scored just once in 17 appearances. Still, Leipzig could benefit from Bayern Munich’s packed schedule across multiple competitions and the fact that Julian Nagelsmann and co get to host their big Bundesliga rivals like Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Bayern at home. If they can whittle Bayern’s lead until matchday 32, their trip to Dortmund that day and the home game against Wolfsburg will be very interesting indeed.
With U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams slowly building form, the outstanding work of Angelino out on the left wing, the magic of Dani Olmo in midfield and towering Dayot Upamecano at centre-back, they have the squad to be there should Bayern indeed fall apart during the later stages of the season. It’s just not very realistic.
Prediction: Bayern Munich, who else? The Bavarians will secure a record ninth straight Bundesliga title. Back in 2012, when they last failed to win the league, this season’s breakout star, Leverkusen midfielder Florian Wirtz, had just celebrated his ninth birthday. — Stephan Uersfeld
– Defending champions: Real Madrid
– League leaders: Atletico Madrid
– Top four: Atletico (50 points from 19 games), Barcelona (40 points/20 games), Real Madrid (40 points/20 games), Sevilla (39 points/20 games)
Julien Laurens says Barcelona’s comeback win vs. Granada will go a long way in building their confidence.
Case for the incumbent: Well, they’re Real Madrid. And, erm, that’s about it. It’s also not the most watertight argument, anyway. While yes, there is something about Madrid that means you can’t help thinking they’ll come good when it matters — think must-win matches with Barcelona, Atlético and Inter Milan already this season — and while there are times when they can turn it on — think their recent trip to Alavés — the league hasn’t really been their thing over the past decade or so. They’ve won three of the past 12 titles.
And, of course, every game matters in La Liga, including the ones they don’t seem to realise matter. It is the unassuming games they struggle with, beaten four times already this season, three of them at home, by the teams in ninth, 13th, 14th and 18th place. If that suggests a capacity to react, the chance for a long-winning run that changes how things look and brings hope, they have rarely impressed and there is little sign of sustained form.
Zinedine Zidane has a short, aging squad that is rife with lingering injuries and players who have disengaged. They rely heavily on Thibaut Courtois in goal to keep them in matches and, lacking imagination and decisiveness in front of goal, they don’t score enough. Above all, they already find themselves 10 points off the top having played a game more than the leaders.
Case for the challengers: Atletico have fifty points. FIFTY. After 19 games. Their projected total is 100 points; Real Madrid’s and Barcelona‘s projected totals are 76. And no, they probably won’t all continue at the same rate, but Atletico already have an almighty safety net. Ten points clear with a game in hand, Madrid and/or Barcelona would have to gain points on Atletico at least four times in the final 18 rounds. They would need an almost impeccable run, which seems unlikely even with Barcelona’s very significant improvement of late — their manager, Ronald Koeman, admitted last week that Barcelona are “not in a position to win much,” virtually surrendering in the league.
Even in the above scenario, Real Madrid and/or Barcelona would need Atletico to slip a little too. Or they need a full-blown collapse from Diego Simeone’s side, which doesn’t seem likely either. Although Atletico might be due a dip or slight regression to the mean, although they won’t always find a way through in tight games as they have done so far, there’s a clarity and reliability about them that inspires confidence. They remain the most defensively strong team in Spain, but there’s a variety about them now, too: they enjoy more possession, more shots and more goals.
This might well be the best chance Atlético have ever had to win the league — better even than the last time they actually did win it all.
Prediction: Real Madrid haven’t successfully defended a title since 2008 and they don’t look likely to do so now, either. Barcelona don’t look like recovering it, although they are looking much better. Let’s say it again: 50 points. Ten points clear, and boasting a bigger lead than any title-winning team has ever overturned, it would take something gigantic for Atletico not to win it now. Nothing’s impossible, of course, but this is as close as it gets. — Sid Lowe
– Defending champions: Juventus
– League leaders: AC Milan
– Top of table: AC Milan (46 points from 20 games), Inter Milan (44 points/20 games), AS Roma (40 points/20 games), Juventus (39 points/19 games)
Matteo Bonetti explains why he is excited by the recent results and performances of Andrea Pirlo’s Juventus.
Case for the incumbent: Juventus have won the Scudetto nine times on the trot,but have looked vulnerable both last season and in 2020-21. They sit seven points off AC Milan, but with a game in hand; the other clubs around them are smelling blood. While Andrea Pirlo knows from his playing days what it takes to win Italy’s biggest prize, he is in uncharted waters in his first campaign as manager and that inexperience might prove costly.
Pirlo’s philosophy for this Juve side is anchored on an idealistic view of the game (not to be discouraged), focusing on playing attractive football rather than the win-at-all-costs mentality we saw under previous regimes. But they still have Cristiano Ronaldo up front and if their squad can stay fit, they have enough knowledge and nous in the group to get them over the line.
Ronaldo has 15 goals in 16 top-flight appearances this season, and sits second on xG (behind Inter’s Romelu Lukaku) with 13.36. Juve also have U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie in superb form, while the likes of Enrico Chiesa, Danilo and Juan Cuadrado have impressed. But just past the halfway mark, we have a genuine multiteam title chase on our hands. What might yet swing it in Juve’s favour is how the remaining fixture list looks — they play AC Milan, Inter Milan, Lazio and Roma all at home.
Case for the challengers: According to FiveThirtyEight, Inter Milan are favourites to win Serie A this season, with the statistical analysis website giving them a 38% chance of triumphing compared to Juventus at 22% and AC Milan at 21%. Under Antonio Conte, they have his winner’s mentality running through the DNA of the club, and with the manager having kept his job in the summer despite general uncertainty around the side, they look to be building a real title challenge. Their close-season recruitment focused on the here and now, with experienced campaigners Aleksandar Kolarov and Arturo Vidal favoured over more long-term signings.
AC Milan are top of the tree and ticking along nicely, but they might yet run of steam, and an injury to one of their key players (Theo Hernandez, Gianluigi Donnarumma or Zlatan Ibrahimovic) could derail their season. But they recruited well in January, bringing in veteran striker Mario Mandzukic and young Chelsea defender Fikayo Tomori as they push for a first title since 2012. Atalanta are always a threat and recently thumped AC Milan 3-0 at the San Siro, but they lost talismanic Alejandro “Papu” Gomez to Sevilla in the transfer window. Roma, Napoli and form side Lazio are in the mix, but are most likely chasing a top-four spot instead of a trophy.
Prediction: The omens look good for AC Milan. Just twice since 2000 have the “winter champions” (the team leading the league at the midpoint) not gone on and taken the Scudetto — both times it was Napoli who surrendered their lead. Though AC have a neat blend of youth and experience (Sandro Tonali, Rafael Leao and Jens Petter Hauge have impressed), Inter Milan have no European distractions (the only team in the top seven to be out of Europe completely) and boast the best striker in Serie A in Lukaku alongside the outstanding Lautaro Martinez.
Juventus and AC Milan will inevitably push them hard, and though it might come down to the odd point or scrambled late goal to swing the title balance, I feel Conte’s Inter will go on and end Juve’s dominance in Italy. — Tom Hamilton
– Defending champions: Paris Saint-Germain
– League leaders: Lille
– Top of table: Lille (51 points from 23 games), Lyon (49 points/23 games), PSG (48 points/23 games), AS Monaco (45 points/23 games)
Case for the incumbent: It is hard to believe, and it certainly doesn’t happen very often, but PSG are only third in Ligue 1, three points behind Lille and one behind Lyon, with 15 games to go. It’s probably deserved, too. They have not been the best team in the league this season so far, losing five games already including at home against Lyon and Marseille, and recently at strugglers Lorient. They have lacked control, like at Monaco where they were 2-0 up at half-time and lost. They have made plenty of mistakes defensively, and had more injuries and positive COVID-19 cases than their immediate rivals.
The fact that they played their Champions League final against Bayern Munich on the same day the new Ligue 1 season started was also difficult to manage. They didn’t have any preseason, and had to process losing the final — and missing so narrowly on their Holy Grail — while going straight into a new domestic campaign.
Their place in the table is one of the reasons they changed managers. Thomas Tuchel was sacked on Christmas Eve, replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, and slowly the Argentine is changing the tactical formation (4-2-2-2) and the style with more intensity and different patterns of play. But he needs time. The last time Paris changed coaches at Christmas, in the 2011-2012 season, with Carlo Ancelotti replacing Antoine Kombouare, they were top and went on to finish second, beaten by Montpellier, the surprise champions. This time, they will hope for the opposite effect, starting in third and finishing first with a new manager.
Case for the challengers: Could Lille, Lyon or Monaco pull a Montpellier 2011-12 or a Monaco 2016-17? Those are the only two seasons in the past 10 years that didn’t end with PSG crowned champions. The trio are certainly serious contenders.
Lille have been very consistent. They have lost only twice, they have the best manager in the league in Christophe Galtier, a squad of very talented youngsters and experienced seniors, and the discipline required to finish the job. Still playing in the Europa League might be a lot for them — they are drawn against Ajax in the round of 32 — but they are not scared by anything.
Lyon have not been in Europe this season, meaning they’ve have been able to focus solely on the league. After a slow start, they were fantastic between mid-October and mid-December. Their “KTM” front three (Tino Kadewere, Karl Toko Ekambi and Memphis Depay) has been great — so too has Lucas Paqueta, who arrived from AC Milan in October and changed everything. Lately though, they’ve lacked the kind of fluidity that can win titles.
Finally, Monaco have made a late surge to get into the conversation. Niko Kovac and his players have won six of six games in 2021. They play with so much energy and intensity; their front two of Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland has been exceptional this season (22 combined goals in Ligue 1) as has Aurelien Tchouameni in midfield. Can they keep it going? Defensively, they are a bit sloppy at times, but they are not in Europe either and therefore have a clear schedule to really go for the title.
Prediction: PSG are still huge favourites to win the title, but they cannot afford any more mistakes. Five losses is already too many, and their games coming up away at Lyon, and at home against Monaco and Lille, will be huge. In this very particular season, their rivals really believe they have a big chance to upset the odds. And they are right.
Lyon have the most experience, but are not playing well lately. Lille play with no pressure or fear, but are a young squad, while Monaco are the strongest collectively despite lacking experience with this kind of pressure. All their head-to-head battles will be fascinating in weeks to come. Despite PSG being rightly the favourite, this is a very open title race. More open than ever. — Julien Laurens