Four big European leagues are already all but settled, and it’s only the first week of January. Congratulations to Manchester City on winning the Premier League, Barcelona on winning La Liga, Bayern Munich on winning the Bundesliga, and Paris Saint-Germain on winning Ligue 1 — all virtually, not mathematically, of course.
It’s easy to be cynical about the lack of title races, but the champions being determined doesn’t mean you should tune out until the World Cup. Here are 11 things that make watching Europe’s big leagues still very much worth your time.
Manchester City might be historically great
If we can’t have a competitive title race, perhaps the next best thing is getting to watch one of the greatest teams in a league’s history. City is trying to become the second team in modern English football to finish the season undefeated, after Arsenal’s 2003-04 squad.
But even if City loses a game, there are other records to chase. The club is on pace to finish on 107 points, which would shatter the record of 95 set by Chelsea in the 2004-05 season. It’s also on pace for 110 goals, just ahead of the 2009-10 Chelsea side’s 103, and on pace for a plus-88 goal differential, while the 2009-10 Blues finished on plus-71.
In the event City can match or better all four accomplishments, it should stand definitively as the greatest Premier League team of all time. Watching something like that is just as good as watching a close title race.
The Kane-Salah golden boot race
City has a trio of great scorers in Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, but they’ll likely cost each other the chance to lead the Premier League in scoring. The race looks like it’ll be between the stars of two teams in the top four scrap — Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur has 18 goals, while Mohamed Salah of Liverpool has 17.
Kane has been steadily getting a bit better with each of his seasons up top for Spurs, but Salah’s goal-scoring return has been a bit of a surprise. The one (and possibly only) serious knock on him at AS Roma was his poor finishing. But...
...he’s fixed that. Expect these two to go back and forth for the league scoring lead all season.
The Premier League relegation race is going to be bananas
Here’s the entire bottom half of the Premier League. Can you say with absolute certainty that any one of these teams is definitely staying up or definitely getting relegated?
There are multiple relegation six-pointers every week. Every newly promoted team has a good chance to stay in the league, and teams that were in the Europa League recently could go down. Every Premier League game might be meaningful on the final day.
Serie A certainly isn’t over yet
The title might be all but decided in four of Europe’s top five leagues, but the race is very much wide open in Italy. Napoli currently leads on 48 points, with six-time defending champs Juventus just one point back on 47. Inter has struggled over its last four games but is still in touch on 41 points. Roma and Lazio might not be able to contend for the title, but they’re making the race for Champions League places close with 39 and 37 points, respectively.
If your view of Serie A is based on stereotypes about slow and defensive soccer, it’s time to tune in and update your opinions. Yes, you’ll see some teams playing with a back five and 10 players behind the ball, but there’s a greater variety of playing styles in Italy than ever before, with Napoli and Lazio playing particularly fast and attacking. Give it a shot.
Icardi, Dybala and Higuain are battling for one World Cup place
Argentina had a terrible and tumultuous World Cup qualifying cycle, characterized by its inability to find the right striker to play with Lionel Messi. The Albiceleste have more decent options at center forward than any other team in the world, meaning they can pick a new one at any time, and some great ones have to miss out.
Aguero is locked into a spot if he’s fit, and hard-working role player Darío Benedetto of Boca Juniors might get a bench place over a bigger name. That means there might only be one roster spot for Serie A stars Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. In Jorge Sampaoli’s last Argentina squad, only Dybala made the cut.
Higuain has been the most consistent performer of the three during this cycle, but he’s best known for missing big chances in finals, and Argentina fans won’t be happy if he’s the starter again. Dybala is the team’s young rising star, but he’s been inconsistent for Juventus this season.
Icardi is the outsider, having rarely been called up, but he is in the best form of the three — he leads Serie A with 17 goals. There have been rumors that Icardi was excluded because of his personal life — his wife is the ex-wife of fellow footballer Maxi Lopez, a close friend of Lionel Messi.
All three strikers know they’re fighting for their place at the World Cup, and it’s going to be a huge storyline for the rest of the season.
10 teams are in the race for 3 Champions League spots in Germany
Sure, Bayern Munich is running away with the title, but check out what’s going on in second-through-11th places below them:
Competing in the Champions League could be a club-changing event for any of those clubs in eighth-through-11th. For Hoffenheim, ‘Gladbach and Leipzig, it could be the difference between keeping key players and a mass exodus. Schalke, Dortmund and Leverkusen need the money and prestige that comes with Champions League to build squads that can challenge Bayern in the future. This might be the best race to watch anywhere in Europe.
Check out Timo Werner, your smart money for World Cup golden boot
At most bookies, the favorites to win the golden boot are going to be Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. Euro 2016 top scorer Antoine Griezmann, England striker Harry Kane, and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku are going to have short odds too. But if you want to make some money, your best bet is Germany and RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner:
Werner scored 21 goals last season and has seven in 10 appearances for Germany, including three in last year’s Confederations Cup. But because he’s never scored on a big World Cup or Champions League stage, he’s still a bit under the radar. Watch him with RBL the second half of the season, then impress your friends by hyping him up before he takes the golden boot in July.
PSG might not have competition, but they’re so fun
The trio of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe has to get it done at Champions League level before anyone hails them as the best in Europe. But their exploits thus far show that they have the potential to be just that.
And with Ligue 1 all but wrapped up, they might just do more silly exhibition stuff. You can’t tell me that watching these dudes embarrass people isn’t awesome.
Lyon is on its way back
Olympique Lyonnais will likely never get back to the days when it won seven straight Ligue 1 titles, but Les Gones are putting a foundation in place to mount a challenge in the near future, if it can keep the vultures from signing its best players for one summer.
Lyon sits in third place and is challenging to get into Champions League with a young core. Memphis Depay, still just 23, has recovered from his slump at Manchester United to become one of the best players in Ligue 1. Mariano Diaz, 24, has 13 goals this season and is proving to be an excellent replacement for Alexandre Lacazette. Once rising star Nabil Fekir has recovered from a serious knee injury to post 13 goals and four assists this season. And these are the old stars.
Here are all the players 22 or younger to play for Lyon this season: Kenny Tete, Mouctar Diakhaby, Ferland Mendy, Houssem Aouar, Lucas Tousart, Tanguy N’Dombele, Bertrand Traore, Maxwell Cornet, Myziane Maolida, Amine Gouiri and Willem Geubbels. Those last three are all 18 or younger. The last two are the star players of France’s U-17 squad. Lyon could be the next 2016-17 Monaco.
Valencia’s redemption tour is really fun
Over the last two decades, Valencia has been a consistent Champions League participant or contender to win the Europa League, save for two big dips. The first was caused by the 2008 financial crisis, and the second by...who knows, really?
Former manager Nuno guided Valencia to fourth place in the 2014-15 season but resigned early into the next campaign after some poor results. Things only got worse from there, with Los Che cycling through Pako Ayestarán, Gary Neville and Cesare Prandelli in the manager’s chair en route to two consecutive 12th place finishes.
But things are different this season under Marcelinho, the manager known for returning Villarreal to prominence after its relegation. He left the Yellow Submarine due to differences with the club’s board, and that’s been to Valencia’s gain. He has Los Che in third place, ahead of Real Madrid, Sevilla, and his old club.
Valencia is particularly fun to watch because of a style of play that’s unique to Spain — and honestly, would be unique to the Premier League these days too. They play a classic 4-4-2 with true wingers, one athletic midfielder and one playmaking one, a big striker and a quick striker. And that system is reviving the careers of players like Simone Zaza, Gonçalo Guedes and Geoffrey Kondogbia, who struggled with their previous clubs.
If you miss the soccer of 10 years ago, you’ll really like watching Valencia.
Ousmane Dembele is finally healthy!
Barcelona has had to make do without its Neymar replacement for the entire first half of the season thanks to an injury. Ousmane Dembele looked extremely dynamic in his early appearances with Barca, but he tore his hamstring in just his third game.
This is the kind of stuff you can hope to see this spring:
Barcelona’s been arguably the best team in Europe this season while rotating a cast of average role players in Neymar’s place. Imagine how good they might be with someone as dynamic as Dembele on the wing instead? Barca is about to get really fun.