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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

One-club title races as Messi and Ronaldo lead the half-century strikers: European football 2017 review

As the calendar year draws to a close, Ian Hawkey looks back over the past 12 months at the big leagues across Europe.

Barcelona's victory against Real Madrid in the clasico means they hold a healthy lead in the Primera Liga title race. Lionel Messi's goal at the Bernabeu was his 54th of 2017, putting him in a select group of strikers to score half a century of goals this year.  Oscar Del Pozo / AFP
Barcelona's victory against Real Madrid in the clasico means they hold a healthy lead in the Primera Liga title race. Lionel Messi's goal at the Bernabeu was his 54th of 2017, putting him in a select group of strikers to score half a century of goals this year. Oscar Del Pozo / AFP

Where’s the suspense?

Look hard, and you can find a nail-biting title-race in the major leagues of Europe, but there is only one. The fashionable distance between first and second place in the top divisions these days is double figures.

In Spain, unbeaten Barcelona’s victory in the clasico at Real Madrid, coupled with defeats for Atletico Madrid and Valencia, means they have close to that, with a nine point advantage over second-placed Atletico. That advantage is matched in France by Paris Saint-Germain, who have reached 50 points, nine more than champions Monaco and third-placed Lyon.

In Germany, Bayern Munich lead Schalke by 11, two points fewer than the gap the former Bayern and Barca manager, Pep Guardiola, has guided Manchester City to in the Premier League.

Carry on at this rate, and these so-called title-races will be all over with six, seven or even eight matches to spare.

In Italy, though, a proper tussle. The leadership of the table has shifted within December, a promising omen for those who like to be kept on the edge of their seats at least into the spring.

Napoli have made a watchable, compelling stab at ending Juventus’s six-year-long monopoly of the scudetto, and will hope they can sustain their form more robustly than Inter Milan, defeated in the last two games before the winter break.

Juve, meanwhile, signed off with an ominous 1-0 win over fourth-placed Roma.

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The Half-Century Club

Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski joins Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, and Edinson Cavani in scoring 50 or more goals. Michael Dalder / Reuters
Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski joins Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, and Edinson Cavani in scoring 50 or more goals. Michael Dalder / Reuters

Running parallel with the large leads being built up at the top of the prestigious tables, are the big numbers being compiled by Europe’s hotshots.

The Messi-Ronaldo decade – it is 10 years since a mortal who was not one of these two was awarded the Ballon d’Or – has accustomed us to extraordinary feats of individual goalscoring, and ratios close to, or better than, a goal per game.

This year has a pack of strikers who have passed 50 club goals, across competitions. Robert Lewandowski (53) is one big reason for Bayern’s ability to dominate domestically, despite firing a manager this season already; Messi is Messi, and scored his 54th of the year in the win over Real Madrid, whose Ronaldo has 53 goals, this having gone through a lean spell since August.

PSG’s Edinson Cavani has struck 54 times, while Harry Kane, on 53, still has a match left to catch up with that tally, with Tottenham Hotspur playing on Tuesday.

And in their slipstream ...

Neymar is among a select group of strikers who could go on and score 50 goals in 2018. Franck Fife / AFP
Neymar is among a select group of strikers who could go on and score 50 goals in 2018. Franck Fife / AFP

Each of those expert finishers have been with their current clubs for a while, which helps a striker establish routines, habits and hierarchy.

By this time next year, expect one of the forwards who have moved clubs for record-breaking fees in 2017 to be on the the list of hotshots.

Neymar perhaps, or Kylian Mbappe, who have 19 Ligue 1 goals between them from the last four months at PSG? Or even Mohamed Salah, sensationally productive at Liverpool since he moved there from Roma.

Watch out, too, for the performances of a pair of strikers ready to line up for new, and former clubs as soon as 2018 starts - Diego Costa back at Atletico Madrid after three-and-a-half seasons at Chelsea, and 30-year-old Sandro Wagner, freshly signed by the Bayern he left almost a decade ago.

Europe bowing to Premier League power

Eden Hazard and Chelsea face Barcelona in the last-16 stage of the Uefa Champions League. Clive Rose / Getty Images
Eden Hazard and Chelsea face Barcelona in the last-16 stage of the Uefa Champions League. Clive Rose / Getty Images

England’s top division may be a one-horse race, but the next best in the Premier League are good enough to duke it over their equivalents abroad. No English club has made it as far as a final in the Uefa Champions League for five seasons, but this month a maximum contingent of Premier League sides reached the last 16 of the competition.

Giving way to this tide were a German heavyweight, Borussia Dortmund, the 2013 runners-up effectively pushed aside by Tottenham Hotspur; a Spanish expert in elite knockout football, Atletico Madrid, finalists in 2014 and 2016 eliminated from Chelsea’s group; and the Italian league-leaders, Napoli, whose two defeats by Manchester City cost them the possibility of progress from the mini-league phase.

Next up, there’s an intriguing Liga versus Prem double-header, when Sevilla play Manchester United and Chelsea take on Barcelona in February.

Farewells, and Welcome Back

Roma's long-serving captain Francesco Totti ended his playing career in 2017. Vincenzo Pinto / AFP
Roma's long-serving captain Francesco Totti ended his playing career in 2017. Vincenzo Pinto / AFP

The European stage lost some greats to retirement in 2017. Arriverderci to the Peter Pan of Rome, the inimitable Francesco Totti; Auf Wiedersehen to World Cup-winning captain, Philipp Lahm, and his Bayern Munich teammate, the cultured Xabi Alonso.

But it was also a year of comebacks. During 2017 there were genuine doubts about whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic, badly injured, or Mario Gotze, ill, would play at the top level again. They have done.

And it is heart-warming to see lesser lights, such as Thomas Vermaelen, excellent for Barcelona the last two months after endless agonies over fitness and the luckless Giuseppe Rossi, back in action last week for his latest club, Genoa, defying repeated and chronic problems, to return to elite football.

Oh, and Super Mario’s back on an upward curve. Again. Balotelli has 10 goals for Nice already this season.

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