The curtain will soon come down on the 2020/21 European football season. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis globally has seen football stadiums and their stands lying empty as the sport continues behind closed doors. One only hopes increased vaccination campaigns throughout Europe will finally see an end to empty stadiums for the entirety of the 2021/22 campaign.
Despite the absence of supporters, there has been no shortage of drama. Of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues, Manchester City are closing in on a 3rd English Premier League title in four seasons, Inter Milan have ended Juventus’ run of Italian Serie A titles at nine and Bayern Munich are all but assured of a ninth straight German Bundesliga title.
Those seeking championship-deciding drama must focus their attention onto France’s Ligue 1 & Spain’s La Liga. As both championships reach the finishing straight, who are the five runners & riders in both and what are the footballing backgrounds of each challenger?
LOSC Lille: The Surprise Package With Likely Just One Shot at Glory
The first team to analyse is Lille OSC. The Northern French outfit are five-time French champions, (1913/14, 1932/33, 1945/46, 1953/54 and 2010/11). After an eventual 4th placed finish in the 2019/20 Ligue 1, which was curtailed early due to Covid, pre-season expectations were at most a top-three finish to secure Champions League qualification. However, even the most optimistic Lille supporter could not have predicted they would sit top of Ligue 1 with just three games remaining.
A key figure in Les Douges’ brilliant campaign is manager Christophe Galtier. The 54 year-old took over at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in December 2017 from Marcelo Bielsa. His first 6 months in charge saw Lille only narrowly avoid relegation in 2017/18. However, it has been onwards & upwards since, demonstrated by taking Les Dogues from 17th place in 2017/18 to 2nd place in 2018/19 and the aforementioned 4th place last term.
Galtier possesses a reputation amongst certain French footballing circles as arguably the best manager in Ligue 1. Prior to his current spell at Lille, Galtier spent seven full seasons in charge of Saint-Ètienne between 2009 and 2017. During his time there, he led Les Verts to four consecutive top-six finishes in Ligue 1 over a four-season period from 2012/13 to 2015/16 alongside a 2012/13 Coupe de la Ligue triumph.
Star talent in Lille’s charge to a potential sixth French title include goalkeeper Mike Maignan, young Dutch central defender Sven Botman, Turkish attacking duo Yusuf Yazıcı and Burak Yılmaz and highly-rated Canadian attacker Jonathan David. In addition, an experienced spine such as the ever-present Benjamin André in the centre of midfield and 37-year-old Portuguese central defender José Fonte has helped Lille’s young talents along the way.
Key to Lille’s rise was the work of former sporting director Luís Campos. The 56 year-old worked at Les Dogues between 2017 & 2020 and had a strong hand in the recruitment of many of Lille’s current crop of stars. Talent brought in by Campos has been sold for massive profits, with examples including Victor Osimhen, Nicolas Pepé, Rafael Leão and Gabriel Magalhães.
2020/21 could represent Lille’s best chance of a title for a while. This side will likely break up this summer. Galtier is out of contract at season’s end and his work at Lille over the past two and a half seasons will have undoubtedly attracted glances from elsewhere. Playing departures are expected too, especially considering many clubs including Lille themselves have been affected by the ongoing French television rights chaos. Maignan has already reportedly attracted the interest of AC Milan whilst Botman has also been linked with a summer move.
Lille’s three remaining matches see them travel to 5th-placed in-form RC Lens, take on 12th placed Saint-Ètienne at home and finish out the campaign against 13th-placed Angers away. With both Saint-Ètienne and Angers being practically safe from relegation and having little other than pride to play for, one suspects the next match against Lens away could prove decisive. Can Lille hold their nerve and bring a Ligue 1 title to the Stade Pierre Mauroy against all odds?
Paris Saint Germain: The Elite of French Football Under Pressure and a Manager Needing a Trophy
Just one point behind Lille in 2nd place with just three games remaining in the 2020/21 Ligue 1 campaign, all the pressure of the title run-in is on the shoulders of Paris Saint Germain. The takeover of the club by Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund of the Qatari state in 2011 has transformed the club into one of European football’s powerhouses.
Now into the tenth season of Qatari ownership, it has delivered PSG seven Ligue 1 titles and four domestic trebles of Ligue 1, Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue (2014/15, 2015/16, 2017/18 and 2019/20). Last season also saw PSG break new horizons in European competition as they reached the final of the UEFA Champions League for the first time, shedding a reputation for choking in Europe, before narrowly losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in Lisbon.
Managers at PSG have to dominate domestically and at minimum reach the latter rounds of the Champions League. Anything less is considered a disappointment. In European competition so far in 2020/21, the minimum objective of reaching the latter rounds of the Champions League was achieved. PSG reached the semi-finals having impressively seen off both FC Barcelona and Bayern en route before deservedly falling at the penultimate hurdle to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
However, domestically, PSG’s 2020/21 has so far underwhelmed. Despite sitting 2nd in the standings, the Parisian outfit have suffered eight Ligue 1 losses, should they win the title, this would be the highest number suffered in a championship season in the Qatari era. The last side to win a Ligue 1 title having suffered 8 league defeats was Olympique Lyonnais in 2001/02. It is a far cry from PSG winning the 2015/16 title on 13th March 2016 with 8 matchdays remaining in the season.
Not only are PSG a club under pressure to win the Ligue 1 title, but their manager is also under pressure to add silverware to his CV. 49-year-old Mauricio Pochettino took charge of PSG in January 2021, the Argentine succeeding Thomas Tuchel after the German was relieved of his duties just a few weeks earlier amid a reported strained relationship with the club’s sporting director Leonardo.
In just over five seasons in charge of Tottenham Hotspur between May 2014 and his eventual dismissal from the club in November 2019, Pochettino won plaudits for his transformation of the North London outfit into a strong force. Pochettino achieved Tottenham’s highest league finish since 1962/63, 2nd place in the 2016/17 Premier League. In his five completed seasons in charge, Spurs only finished outside of the top four positions just once.
However, the only Pochettino criticism from his time at Tottenham was a lack of silverware. The closest he came was losing the final of the 2014/15 League Cup to José Mourinho’s Chelsea and a loss to Liverpool FC in the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League final. At Tottenham, such criticism for lack of a trophy was modest as Spurs faced such tough competition in the presence of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Pochettino, despite his status as a past PSG playing hero will not have the same luxury of muted criticism in the French capital should he not win trophies. Whatever happens, given he only arrived mid-season, the Argentine will at minimum get a second season in 2021/22 to build on his predecessor’s work. However, failure to win a trophy this campaign will only increase the pressure going into next season.
Of PSG’s remaining three Ligue 1 matches, only one could offer a good chance of a slip-up, it is their Matchday 36 fixture away against 7th-placed Stade Rennais, who are chasing a UEFA Europa League qualification spot for next season. Their remaining fixtures against mid-table Stade de Reims and relegation-threatened Stade Brestois look very winnable. However, Ligue 1 is out of the Parisians’ hands, they need Lille to slip up somewhere.
Atlético de Madrid: A Great Start, Wobbles, a Lead Eroded, a Manager Beginning To Face Questions
Moving to Spain’s La Liga, Sunday 31st January 2021, Atlético de Madrid supporters were in dreamland. After a 4-2 away victory against Cádiz, Los Colchoneros stood top of La Liga, 11 points clear of 2nd placed city rivals Real Madrid. Diego Simeone’s troops held a huge advantage over the chasing pack, Atleti were free-scoring, playing full of confidence and an 11th league title in their history looked a formality.
The victory against Cádiz was Atleti’s 19th league match of the campaign, a completed first half of the season which yielded 50 points, an average of 2.63 points per game. However, in the 15 completed matches since that victory at Estadio Ramón de Carranza, Atleti have picked up only 26 points, an average of just 1.73 points per game. Many observers highlight the turning point in Atlético’s campaign was back-to-back league games against Levante in mid-February, both yielded just one point for Simeone’s troops as they drew the away match 1-1 and lost the home match 2-0.
Shortly after the Levante matches, Atleti deservedly lost over two legs in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match against Chelsea FC. Not only have Atleti’s results tanked since these aforementioned events, their early-season performances have also fallen off a cliff. Routine wins have been replaced by nervy narrow one-goal victories such as the 1-0 home victory over relegation-threatened Deportivo Alavés on Matchday 28.
It has been clear to see that the tension has been getting to even a coach with the reputation of Simeone. Throughout Atlético’s recent 2-1 away loss against Athletic Club on Matchday 33, Simeone looked a bag of nerves through his body language and facial expressions on the sidelines. In addition, he has actually faced some criticism lately for moving players around on the pitch into different positions and roles too often in-game.
Atlético’s collapse from an 11-point lead to just 3 points will surely give Los Colchoneros supporters painful reminders of a similar collapse that took place in England in 1995/96. That campaign, Newcastle held a 12 point lead in February 1996 and looked set for a certain Premier League title. Just three months later, Manchester United had won the league by 4 points in one of the all-time footballing chokes.
Should Atleti fail to win La Liga, it will be seen not only as a massive choke, but as a fantastic opportunity wasted, especially considering the current incarnations of Real and Barca look much weaker than those of 5/6 seasons ago. Despite their wobble, Atleti still have La Liga in their hands as they sit two points ahead of both Barcelona and Real, win every game and they are champions. However, their potentially decisive Matchday 35 contest away against Barca will be a true test of Atletico’s character given their recent record at Camp Nou. Their last victory there in La Liga was a 3-1 triumph in the 2005/06 campaign.
Even more nerve-shredding for Colchoneros supporters is the fact that Atleti would be taking a risk should they opt to play for a draw in this fixture. Should that happen and Real Madrid defeat Sevilla on the same Matchday, then Real would go level on points with Atleti in the standings. However, Los Blancos would have the advantage due to a superior head-to-head record.
Real Madrid: Zidane’s Old Guard Look To Defy the Odds Again in the Post-Ronaldo Transition Era
Defending Spanish champions Real Madrid are the second horse in the thrilling La Liga title race. Zinedine Zidane’s outfit powered to the 2019/20 title after rattling off 10 straight victories in La Liga between matchdays 28 and 37. This run confirmed Los Blancos’ status as a “clutch game” winning side.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that any side in world football would face an adaptation period when a star like Cristiano Ronaldo departs. The Portuguese swapped Madrid for Turin in the summer of 2018 by transferring to Juventus. Taking away Ronaldo had an impact on Los Blancos’ attacking prudency, Real netted 106 & 94 goals in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons respectively. In both campaigns, Ronaldo contributed 25 and 26 goals respectively. Real only netted 63 goals in 2018/19, 70 goals in 2019/20 and so far after 34 games, just 58 goals in 2020/21.
Crucially, one man has stepped up to fill the void, Karim Benzema. Since the Portuguese’s departure, 33 year-old Benzema has carried Real’s attack. In 2019/20, Benzema netted 21 La Liga goals, Real’s next highest scorer being defender Sergio Ramos with 11. In 2020/21, the Frenchman has netted 22 La Liga goals so far, 37% of Real’s entire league total of 58.
In addition, the veteran midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Casemiro and Toni Kroos still continue to be vital cogs in Real’s machine despite getting very little rest. It’s worth stating that one criticism of Zidane recently has been an inability to integrate fresh talent into Real’s midfield. Federico Valverde has struggled to find regular first-team football and other youngsters such as Martin Ødegaard and Dani Ceballos being loaned out to Arsenal after failing to become first-team regulars.
Deprived of the sheer talent of Ronaldo in addition to Eden Hazard being plagued with injuries since his arrival at the Santiago Bernabéu in the summer of 2019, it can be argued that the 2020/21 campaign has been one of Zidane’s best from a coaching perspective. When tasked to find solutions in tough circumstances, Zidane has often delivered. Two El Clásico victories over Barcelona in La Liga and their two-legged Champions League quarterfinal triumph over Liverpool being evidence of this.
Barca’s shock loss to Granada on Matchday 33 means that Real should they win all their remaining matches could have the destiny of La Liga in their own hands. Now freed of Champions League duties after their 3-1 aggregate loss to Chelsea in the semi-finals, its La Liga or bust for Zidane and his troops. One or both of Barça and Atleti will drop points when they meet each other on Matchday 35, so Los Blancos will have an eye on that score.
However, Real face a challenge of their own that weekend as they take on Sevilla at home in one of several tough remaining fixtures for Los Blancos. However, it must be stressed that Sevilla’s late 1-0 home defeat to Athletic Club on Matchday 34 has all but ended the Andalusians’ title challenge and this could affect them mentally before playing Real Madrid.
FC Barcelona: Off-Field Crisis, Low Pre-Season Expectations, Yet on the Brink of a Domestic Double
FC Barcelona entered the 2020/21 campaign in a state of crisis both on and off the pitch. Prior to the start of the new season, Barç were rocked by the revelation that their talisman, Lionel Messi indicated his desire to leave the club. With just two months left on his contract at Camp Nou, the Argentine genius could well depart for pastures new this summer, a situation which seemed in fathomable just a few seasons ago.
In addition to the intense speculation on Messi’s future, Barça suffered another blow when the full extent of their financial woes came to light. The club is reportedly EUR 1.173 billion in debt of which, EUR 730 million is short-term liabilities and EUR 266 million has to be paid to the banks by 30th June 2021.
Barcelona, under new manager Ronald Koeman began the 2020/21 La Liga campaign sluggishly. Four losses in their first 12 La Liga matches, including a shock Matchday 12 2-1 away loss to Cádiz saw the Catalans lying down in 9th place in La Liga. Well behind leaders Atlético, pre-season predictions that Barca would struggle to challenge for the title and that this would be a season where the Catalan giants would likely not win any honours looked to become a reality.
However, since the beginning of 2021, Barça have hit a red-hot streak. In their eighteen La Liga matches in the new year, the Catalans have emerged victorious in fifteen. After a relatively slow start to the campaign, the talismanic Messi has re-emerged in splendid form recently, seemingly on a personal mission to deliver Barça a 27th La Liga title. In 18 league appearances in 2021, Messi has noted 21 goals & 8 assists compared to just 7 goals and 2 assists in 14 league matches prior to the new year.
Barça’s shock 2-1 home loss against Granada on Matchday 33 meant the Catalans missed a chance to go top of La Liga. Because of this loss, Barça’s arch-rivals Real Madrid are now the side with La Liga in their hands should they win all their matches due to their superior head-to-head record over the Catalan outfit. A victory for Barça versus Atlético by more than one goal in Blaugrana’s vital Matchday 35 encounter at Camp Nou would give them the head-to-head superiority over Atleti, the main tiebreaker when determining league position in La Liga.
Whilst the 5-2 aggregate loss to PSG in the Champions League Round of 16 was a painful blow, Koeman leading Barca to a league and cup double in his first campaign in charge would be more than most Cules would have expected pre-season. Promising young players are once again emerging from Barça’s fabled La Masia youth academy such as Pedri, Óscar Mingueza, Ansu Fati and Ilaix Moriba. Finally, a league & cup double might just be the persuasive factor in convincing Messi to renew his contract to attempt to build a new Barça dynasty.
By: Richard David Pike
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Catherine Steenkeste / Getty Images – Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images – Quality Sport Images / Getty Images – Baptiste Fernandez / Icon Sport