The 2013/14 UEFA Champions League was reduced to its last four contenders this week with the conclusion of the quarter final ties.
And the list of teams on course for a place in next season’s competition is growing, as leagues around Europe head into the final few weeks.
In terms of finishing positions, the Italian, German and French leagues are are the most clear cut, but it’s La Liga and the Premier League where most of the drama is still set to come. Here’s a rundown of the clubs competing for Champions League qualification across Europe’s top leagues.
Bayern Munich are now twenty points clear of second placed Borussia Dortmund, and defeat last week to end their record-breaking 53 match unbeaten run was irrelevant in terms of a title race which was wrapped up long before the end of March.
Pep Guardiola’s men can still equal or break further Bundesliga records should they win all five remaining games, but it will be the performance in this season’s Champions League which will truly determine how successful the campaign has been. Only by becoming the first club to successfully defend the trophy will Bayern’s ambitions be fully met, though whatever the outcome of Bayern’s involvement this season, the pressure will be equally strong when they take their place in the competition next season.
Joining them will almost certainly be Borussia Dortmund, who suffered a serious slump in form during the winter but have recovered sufficiently enough to claim a top three place, with Ruhr rivals Schalke also looking strong for securing qualification.
Assuming that only the fourth and final Bundesliga place is still up for grabs, the qualifier will most likely come from either Borussia Moenchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen or Wolfsburg, who are currently separated in the table by just a single point.
Leverkusen appear to have slightly more favourable fixtures, but have suffered six defeats from their previous nine Bundesliga games and will need a complete reversal of that form in order to climb back into the top four.
Borussia Moenchengladbach are the current occupiers of fourth place, and are also the most in-form team of the three. Results in the away fixture against Schalke, and the potential decider against Wolfsburg on the last day of the season will be the most crucial games.
In Serie A, Juventus are also closing in on an early title win in a season which, like Bayern, could see multiple records being broken.
Juve lead Roma by eight points and have a 100% home record, with a recent loss to Napoli only their second of the season. Roma face Juventus in their last home game of the season, but it’s unlikely that the Scudetto will still be up for grabs by that point.
In third place, Napoli are comfortably ahead of Fiorentina in the race for Italy’s final Champions League qualifying place, and although the two teams will face each other for silverware in the final of the Coppa Italia, the gap of nine points looks too great to be overturned at such a late stage of the season.
Paris St-Germain are just two wins away from a second successive league title under the ownership of big-spending Qatar Sports Investments. Only the equally big-spenders of Monaco have posed any genuine threat to PSG retaining the Ligue 1 crown, but Monaco have gradually fallen further away from the league leaders and since the turn of the year have rarely looked like realistically overhauling Laurent Blanc’s side. Both teams are still involved in domestic cup competitions, but with the league title having looked a formality for some time, PSG may still look back at the season with some disappointment after suffering another quarter final elimination from the Champions League on the away goals rule.
Monaco should wrap up second place, whilst Lille are in pole position for third place and a return to the Champions League, having missed out on European football entirely last season. St Etienne may only be five points adrift with six matches still to play, but look too inconsistent to overturn the points deficit that exists.
In fifth place, nine points outside the top three, are Lyon. After 12 consecutive seasons in the group stage of the competition, Lyon missed out in 2012/13 and failed this season to progress beyond the qualifying round. A third season in a row outside of European football’s premier competition would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago, but that is now the situation facing the 2010 semi-finalists.
In Spain, fans of La liga are being treated to a rare title race involving not two, but three teams. Barcelona led for most of the first half of the season, before being overtaken in January by a Real Madrid team who, from the end of October to mid-March, looked unstoppable. However, two defeats in a row for Real saw them slip to third, and city rivals Atletico now lead the way.
In what could be a quite remarkable conclusion to the Spanish season, Atletico travel to Barcelona on the final day of the season in a game that is shaping up to be a title decider. That will follow a Spanish cup final contested between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the Champions League semi final draw has opened up the possibility of a Madrid derby in the final.
In comparison to such a fierce battle between Spain’s three best teams for domestic and European silverware, the final team from La Liga to qualify for next season’s Champions League seems almost entirely insignificant. But it will be of huge significance in the Basque region where Athletic Bilbao are in a strong position to take up their seat amongst Europe’s elite once again – just a year after seeing their Basque Country rivals achieve a similar feat. Real Sociedad are nine points adrift this time around, while Sevilla are six points behind Athletic Club, and no doubt with one eye on achieving a record-equalling third Europa League triumph.
So, finally to the English Premier League. As in La Liga, it’s been some time since a title race was being fought out so closely between three sides at this stage of the season.
Liverpool lead the way, knowing that five wins from the last five games will secure a first league title since the Premier League was formed. However, those five remaining fixtures involve playing both of their title rivals, and it’s not impossible that the season could go down to the final day with Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City all in with a chance of finishing on top.
What is likely to be confirmed long before May is that all three of those clubs will cement a place in next seasons Champions League, leaving just one spot still to play for. Arsenal currently occupy fourth place and, when looking at the remaining fixtures, will fancy their chances of finishing the league season strongly.
But only a point behind – and with a game in hand – are Everton. Roberto Martinez has already given fans on the blue half of Merseyside plenty of cause for optimism, and Champions League qualification would be a fitting end to a fine debut season under the Spaniard. A challenging set of fixtures must first be overcome in order for that to be a reality, but momentum is with the Blues and there’s no reason to believe that Everton can’t be the team celebrating in May.
One team who are not yet mathematically out of contention, but who will need a footballing miracle to qualify, is Manchester United. Not since 1995 have the 20-time league champions failed to qualify for European football’s premier club competition, but a disastrous Premier League campaign has left Man United with ever-fading hopes of earning qualification for a 19th season in a row.
New manager David Moyes will hope that it is only a one-off, but given the strength of competition in England, there’ll be no guarantees of an instant return at the end of next season.