A captivating European season

The Globe and Mail

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As if by magic, we enter the final furlong of the domestic European seasons with the parity in each of the five top European leagues proving to be something special. There are anywhere from seven to 11 games to go, depending on which league we look at, and so the next eight weeks or so should prove to be the most exciting on the domestic campaign front that there has been.

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The Champions League will likely play a significant role in each of the outcomes as clubs either deal with the shell shock of being knocked out or the remaining focus and stress being applied to the most prestigious of all cup competitions hindering their domestic challenge.

Look for the clubs with the experience and history to be the most resilient. A repeat of the 2009 Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona is a distinct possibility, but both teams winning their domestic leagues as well will be trickier.

France: Ligue 1

Of all the European leagues, Ligue 1 in France is the most hotly contested. With less than 10 games to be played for most teams, there are still five teams in the running for the title. Bordeaux currently stand atop the standings but only on goal difference to Montpellier. Lyon sit in sixth position, only five points adrift. The exciting part of the run-in is the interaction between the top six which is significant. It makes predicting the eventual winner cumbersome.

The other factor which stands out is that two of the top six - Bordeaux and Lyon - play each other in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It means one of the two will get to the semi-final with an extra two games at a vital period on the domestic front. Then the loser of the two-leg tie will have to deal with the disappointment quickly in order to keep in the running for the domestic title.

With Laurent Blanc proving the seamless switch from playing to management is possible, look for Bordeaux to be the best bet to repeat as title winners.

Germany: Bundesliga

Realistically, only three teams are in contention for the Bundesliga title: Bayern Munich, Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen.

With only a few games remaining, the title should just about to sewn up for Bayern Munich if they can win their next three games. No easy task though with Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke 04 being two of the opponents. Talk about duking it out for the title. During this same period Bayer Leverkusan play Schalke 04.

So by April 10 the title should be leaning one way or the other. The Champions League commitment of Bayern Munich against Manchester United should not adversely affect their title chances as their squad depth is good and in Lois Van Gaal they have a master manager. No doubt he is the most significant reason for Bayern's re-emergence as Germany's power. Sensible betting money should go on Bayern Munich to win the title.

Spain's La Liga

As per the norm in Spain, the two polarized giants will once again contest the title. With third placed Valencia some 18 points off Real Madrid and Barcelona, April 11 should be noted in the calendar. This is the date of the return match-up of the two powerhouses - a game that should prove to be the deciding factor for this year's La Liga title race. Real will this time host their Catalan nemesis in what is being billed as a winner-takes-all.

Okay, it should not quite be a winner-takes-all as they could each drop some points in their remaining games but, we get the point. This is the game that really counts. Even on points and only a two-goal margin in goal difference it is as tight as it can get. With Barcelona in the thick of Champions League contention, look for the all white of Madrid to pull through in the end.

Aside from Barcelona's preoccupation with retaining their Champions League crown - which will take every ounce of their energy this year - Real still have two of the best players on the planet in Ronaldo and Kaka and a superb tactician in their manager Pellegrini.

Many have been touting the Real campaign already a failure, as a result of their early omission from the Champions League. A La Liga title win will quash that erroneous thought and you can bet your life the new galacticos are well aware and motivated to prove their worth. The talk of Mourinho arriving at the Bernabeu as a saviour, is premature. They already have him in the form of Manuel Pellegrini. Expect Madrid for the title.

Italian Serie A

After the master class performance by Mourinho in the recent Inter victory over Chelsea many pundits are calling the Portuguese maestro the world's top manager. They could be right, but not so fast. How about waiting to see the outcome of this season first? After all, they could still lose the Serie A title, and if and when they get past CSKA Moscow in the Champions League quarter-final, they will then likely have to face the Messi-driven Catalonia team from Barcelona. If Mourinho can pull off the double this year it will be hard to argue against the world's best manager tag.

Aside from Inter you have their crosstown rivals AC Milan and then Roma, who, from nowhere, have come back into contention for the title. Looking for the outcome here? Go with Inter. Roma, while emerging once again as a force under Claudio Ranieri, will fall short as the 'tinker man' always seems to find a way to undo all the good work he puts forth at the outset. There again, he could prove that he has learnt from his too much tinkering with line-ups and formations by beating Inter in their all important encounter next week. Don't bank on it though.

When push comes to shove this season, AC Milan have proven to not be up to the task. In both derby encounters against Inter and in both legs of the Manchester United Champions League tilt they proved they were second best in all departments.

When the pressure is really on this year, Inter have so far proven to be capable so expect them to pull through in the end. At least in Serie A.

English Premier League

Two months ago it was a two-horse race for the Premier League title. How quickly circumstances can change. The big knock against Arsenal - after being well and truly beaten twice by Chelsea - was they were simply not equipped mentally for the rigours of winning the domestic title. It was a fair observation having reviewed the games.

Since then however, they have proven the critics wrong and, faced with one hitch after another, they have been extremely resilient - none more so than when they beat Stoke City after the unfortunate Aaron Ramsey broken leg. With the easier fixture list of the three contenders, look for Arsenal to be the surprise winners here if Manchester United do not beat Chelsea on their all important encounter on April 3rd.

Talking about Chelsea, there's no better example of how an unexpected detail or two can disrupt the apple cart. John Terry's indiscretions and an uncharacteristic insecure outing against a savvy Manchester City leads to a 4-1 loss. The team have never quite been the same since. The shell shocked Ancelotti looks a little bemused by it all. A dip in form is normal for all teams, even those at the top, and is usually recoverable. But a lack of mental fortitude and strength is difficult to reverse at such a crucial time.

The blues need to find their balance quickly if they want to salvage the season. A win against Man U could be the boost they need for recovery. Anything less and the league title will be over. Meanwhile, United has gone through the up and downs of another eventful campaign. Their Achilles heel at the beginning and even at the midway point of the season - the back four unit - is now proving to be their strength in addition, of course, to the superlative Wayne Rooney.

It would take a brave man to bet against United once again repeating as Premier League Champions - such is their all round strength in every department. No mental frailties here. Having said that, a draw against the aristocrats from London will open the door for Arsenal and against all the odds the Gunners will then take advantage.

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