The end of 2016 sees most of Europe’s top leagues take a break from what has been a fascinating first half of the 2016/17 season.
Teams in Spain, Germany, France and Italy will go off on their various holidays to refresh themselves while the Premier League hogs the festive spotlight. One can’t help but look out for the only source of quality football during that period with some sort of joy, amusement or, if you’re an Arsenal fan, apprehension. With a glut of games beginning on Boxing day through to the New Year, there’s a good chance we’ll see a surprise or two in the world’s most entertaining league.
Chelsea lead the pack by six points but only four points separate second place Liverpool from fifth placed Tottenham. Manchester United seems to finally be picking up some steam and can certainly challenge if they get through this period unscathed. Last seasons surprise title winners, Leicester City, are only three points away from safety but a period without Champions League football should bring some good results. Of the promoted sides, Middlesbrough and Burnley are almost halfway to the vaunted 38-point safety net.
There have been the usual eye-popping results in the Premier League so far this season with Leicester thrashing Manchester City, Bournemouth’s comeback win over Liverpool and the Swansea/Crystal Palace slug-fest among them. Arsenal, however, continue to be the enigma they are each season. There will likely be more twists and turns before the season ends but it might come down to a race between Liverpool and Chelsea given their lack of European commitment.
While most of Europe’s leagues have a familiar look there’s no telling what will happen when the remaining leagues restart in January.
The biggest surprise so far is in France, where Nice hold a two point lead heading into the break. Lucien Favre’s side have done extremely well so far, beating Monaco, Marseille and Lyon at home while tying Paris Saint-Germain away. The French champions lie in third, behind Monaco and ahead of Lyon, while Marseille have moved up to sixth. PSG’s domestic form has been shocking, with four losses already to date, and the recently appointed Unai Emery is on the hot seat. Just like the leaders in the Premier League, Nice have no European commitments while their main challengers do. Monaco may just have the best chance to haul them in if Emery can’t right the ship but Nice have certainly made Ligue 1 much more interesting this season.
Another team that has eyebrows raised are proving the motto of their majority owner. Red Bull Leipzig might not have adhered to the traditional ownership expected in Germany but that is one reason they have been so successful. The newly promoted club sprouted wings to quickly rise up the divisions and sit second in the league right behind Bayern Munich. That, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s inconsistent domestic form, has the traditionalists in Germany breathing into a paper bag despite the challenge to Bayern’s hegemony. The other heavyweights in the league, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, are in eight and eleventh respectively while Wolfsburg languish in 13th place. As is the case in France, the defending champions have a new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and their main challengers currently have no European commitments. Bayern’s talent and Ancelotti’s experience mean the Bavarians will still likely come out on top and they made sure to put their opponents in their place with a 3-0 win in final round of the year.
While things in Germany and France vary from what was expected there’s definitely a familiar look in Italy and Spain.
Juventus haven’t been as dominant as in recent seasons but the Old Lady leads the league with a game in hand on her rivals. Roma and Napoli continue to fight it out for the role of challenger but Juventus has beaten both teams already this season. The surprise of the season in Italy is the resurgence of AC Milan. Vincenzo Montella’s reputation has certainly been enhanced by the work he has done reviving a fallen giant. Without much money to work with, and a mixed bag of talent at his disposal, Montella has his side sitting fifth and in the hunt for a Champions League spot. Only two point separate Milan from second place Roma and if they get a few reinforcements in January they could solidify a Champions League spot. While Montella hopes to end the season as he started a fellow Italian is trying to undertake a similar revival in La Liga with Valencia.
Cesare Prandelli took charge of Valencia at the end of September but has been unable to stop the club’s free-fall. Los Che stand 17th in the league after only one win in their last nine games. Relegation is a strong possibility. At the top half of the table eyes may roll seeing the familiar names of Real Madrid and Barcelona occupying the top two spots. It hasn’t been all easy for either side though, as Madrid have yet to look particularly dominant while Barcelona have suffered some shock results, notably a loss to Alaves at home. Atletico Madrid’s luck seems to have run out as they trail the leaders by 11 points in sixth place with Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad above them and Athletic Bilbao right behind.
Each league has had its share of surprises in the first half of the season and there’s more to come.
There have been managerial changes aplenty at some of Europe’s top sides to go along with the usual player transfers. Those changes have undoubtedly played a role in the current scenario in Europe’s top leagues as new managers taking time adapting to new clubs and, sometimes, leagues has certainly had an effect.
Emery and Ancelotti were targeted by PSG and Bayern to improve their clubs chances in Europe but that wasn’t expected to come at the expense of domestic success. Questions may continue to be asked of Emery as he tries to steer an extremely ambitious club but Ancelotti has the experience to see his side over the line. Whether they meet expectations in Europe as well remains to be seen. In England, Jurgen Klopp has benefited from a full preseason with his side and no European distractions. There are still kinks to iron out but Liverpool look well-placed to challenge at the top. Ditto for Antonio Conte and league-leading Chelsea. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are coming to terms with work that’s needed to fix their new teams but you would bet on both Manchester clubs to be in the running at the end. Real Madrid’s impressive streak certainly bodes well for Zinedine Zidane’s current and future prospects in the hottest seat of them all. Whether he can avoid the drop-off the team had the last time they went to the Club World Cup remains to be seen.
The first half of the 2016/17 season brought plenty of surprising moments on the pitch. The big teams each have their issues to deal with, whether it be new managers, players in poor form or navigating multiple schedules. There’s sure to be more in store as we get into the business end of the season.