European soccer midseason report: Part 1

With the European soccer season at the midway point, it’s time to look at the current standings, title races, and make predictions as to who will finish first and who will come up short in the world’s top footy leagues. This week features the projected winners/losers for both England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.

England: Premier League

The season started promisingly for defending champions Chelsea FC but has since turned into disaster. The Blues scored 21 goals in their first five games and were in first place but have since struggled to score, managing only five goals in a five-game period over December. Nowhere was this more evident than in Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat at Arsenal FC on Dec. 27, which dropped them to fifth place in the Premier League. A 1-0 win against Bolton on Dec. 29, however, has brought them back into the top four, close to the important UEFA Champions League berth for next season.

Manchester United has once again been consistent and remain undefeated in the league with nine wins and one draw at home. United’s struggles on the road, however, have prevented them from increasing their lead at the top of the standings. While MU has not lost away from home yet this season, the Red Devils have only one win and seven draws in eight away matches, and if United do not start winning on the road, the race for the league title at the end of the season might be too close for comfort.

Arsenal FC has been playing very attractive soccer, scoring 39 goals in 19 matches played this season. As of Dec. 31, Arsenal FC stands in third place behind only Manchester United and Manchester City in the Premier League. Arsenal has, however, struggled on the road this season, winning only five times out of 10 games played. Their road woes have plagued their championship hopes in recent years and Arsenal’s road record will need to be excellent late in the season if they are to have any chance in the Premier League title race.

Finally, Manchester City’s play in the first half of the season has given them an outside chance at the title. They currently sit tied for first place with Manchester United, albeit having played two more matches than their cross town rivals. Manchester City has spent close to $400 million dollars during past two seasons on players alone and now they are starting to see positive results. With a 1-0 win over defending champions Chelsea FC on Sept. 25, MC are legitimately in the title race, although their schedule looms large with matches against Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC and Manchester United in the next three months.

With that said, Manchester United are still the frontrunners for the Premier League title; at this point it is theirs to lose. If United play poorly down the stretch, however, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City will be right back in the mix for the English title.

Spain: La Liga

Unlike the Premier League or Italy’s Serie A, first place in La Liga has, for the past 51 years, been captured by either Real Madrid or FC Barcelona. And in 2011 it will be no different. Barcelona are the two time defending La Liga champions, but Real Madrid went on an expensive spending spree over the last two summers acquiring talented players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Kaka and Karim Benzema. Real Madrid have won the most titles in La Liga history with 31. Barcelona sits in second at 20.

Barcelona currently sit in first place with 14 wins out of 16 matches played for a total of 43 points. Real Madrid sit in second place with 13 wins out of 16 matches played for a total of 41 points. Villarreal, Valencia, and Espanyol round out the top five, but unless either Real Madrid or Barcelona struggle mightily, these three teams are not expected to play much of a role in the title race. The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, known as “El Classico,” is played twice every season and is the main event in the La Liga schedule. The first match between the two rivals this season was a blowout 5-0 win for FC Barcelona.

Jose Mourinho, Real Madrid’s first-year head coach, stated he was not afraid of FC Barcelona, but Real Madrid must realize that if they don’t win their rematch with FC Barcelona in April 2011 and Barcelona continues to play winning soccer, they will be destined to finish in second place for the third straight year. In any other European league, finishing in second place would be disappointing but not the end of the world. This is not so in Madrid where expectations are high and a second place finish is viewed as a failure. With Real Madrid’s spending over the last two years, management and players are feeling the pressure to deliver a La Liga title for the first time since 2008. A third consecutive second-place finish is likely unless Real Madrid play consistent football for the rest of the season, and even then, Madrid likely need to beat FC Barcelona and have Barcelona struggle to have any chance at the La Liga title in 2011.

Check out next week’s issue of the Manitoban for predictions and projections of Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League.