Titles and places in European competition that had felt like givens are no longer that way for a number of the biggest clubs across the big five leagues.
One of the annual critiques of Europe’s top soccer leagues is their collective predictability. Either 34 or 38 games will be played over the course of the regular season, and in the end, the same small handful of clubs claims the trophies and the spots in the Champions League. It’s that sense of entitlement that led, in part, for 12 to declare their Super League desires. If they’re just going to be that good that consistently, they may as well just break away, hog a larger piece of the revenue pie and continue to live large.
For the most part, things have remained the status quo on the domestic league level. Bayern Munich won a ninth straight Bundesliga title. Man City has won a fifth Premier League title in the last 10 seasons. Atlético Madrid may be in line to pip Barcelona and Real Madrid to La Liga’s title, but they’re all on course to finish in the top three in Spain for the ninth straight season. The financial imbalances at the top of the “Big Five” leagues make for a certain set of expectations.
Yet not everything has gone to plan this season.
Attribute it to injuries, poor coaching, a compressed schedule, aging squads, bad luck, unexpected challenges from elsewhere or whatever excuse (fair or otherwise) you’d like, but a number of clubs accustomed to a certain level of success are on the cusp of being dealt a solid dose of disappointment. With a couple of games remaining to stave off that disappointment, here are some very real scenarios facing those clubs:
Regulars missing the Champions League
The likes of Juventus, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund have not just been mainstays in the Champions League, they’ve been contenders to go deep into the knockout stage. They’ve all been finalists within the last eight years, with Liverpool lifting the trophy in 2019, and it’s long been assumed that they’ll be taking part in Europe’s showpiece competition year in and year out.
They’ll have to earn it down the stretch, this time, though.
Juventus is a point out of the top four in Serie A and part of the same five-team hunt for three Champions League places that it’s been in for weeks. Atalanta and AC Milan are both on 75 points and Napoli on 73 behind champion Inter Milan to round out the top four. Juve may have celebrated Cristiano Ronaldo’s 100th goal with the club in a key win this week, but it’ll have little else to celebrate if it fails to make up the gap. A date against an Inter side with nothing to lose on Saturday could wind up being a do-or-die moment for a club whose European championship aspirations seem further off in the distance than ever since Ronaldo arrived.
Liverpool fought for three invaluable points Thursday at Old Trafford, beating Manchester United, 4–2, to at the very least stay alive in the Premier League’s top-four hunt. LFC, the outgoing champion beset by injuries all season, is within four points of fourth-place Chelsea with a game in hand and a favorable run-in (West Brom, Burnley, Crystal Palace). It’ll still need some help, though, and with Chelsea facing third-place Leicester and then going to Aston Villa all while having an eye on the Champions League final, the potential for the Blues to slip is there after suffering a detrimental loss to Arsenal on Wednesday. Leicester, which sits six points clear of Liverpool having played a game more, must also play Tottenham to close out the season, so there is a pathway for Jürgen Klopp’s side, provided it wins out.
Dortmund, meanwhile, has climbed back into fourth in the Bundesliga and lifted the DFB Pokal on Thursday, so it’s feeling pretty good about things, but staying consistent has been an issue for the club, and now is not the time to be erratic. Eintracht Frankfurt is just a point behind BVB in fifth, and a last-day showdown for Dortmund vs. Bayer Leverkusen has high-stakes written all over it.
These clubs aren’t used to sweating out whether they’ll be in the Champions League, but that’s precisely the position in which they find themselves now.
PSG’s Ligue 1 reign in jeopardy
PSG has won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 titles, including the last three. The only one in that time that the capital club didn’t win, it finished second to the special Monaco side that introduced Kylian Mbappé to the world—along with his star-studded cast of teammates—and reached the semifinals of the Champions League.
Given that Mbappé is now repping PSG’s colors on a team of high-priced talent that has made the Champions League final and semifinals in consecutive seasons, domestic success should have been a given. Yet Lille has been every bit as consistent as a challenger needs to be to dethrone PSG, and with two games remaining holds a three-point edge (with two games against bottom-half teams to close).
“Since the start of the season we’ve had setbacks we shouldn’t have had. We’ve lost games we shouldn’t have [and] we’re counting the amount of points we’ve lost,” PSG captain Marquinhos said after last Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Rennes, in which PSG blew a lead. “It’s unacceptable that PSG drops points in this way. We’re 1-0 up, 2-0 up and still teams come back against us.”
Mbappé also lamented PSG’s unexpected stumbles at home, saying culpability resided only at those inhabiting Parc des Princes.
“If we lose the league we only have ourselves to blame,” Mbappé told Eurosport following the club’s Coupe de France semifinal triumph. “It will be us who lost [the title], not Lille who won it.”
Mbappé later clarified his comments on Instagram Stories out of respect to Lille, saying that, “Lille would make a fine champion if they are crowned, but with eight defeats, if we lose the title, we are the only ones responsible.”
Regardless of who is to blame, the baseline expectation for a club so financially supported compared to its competition is to sweep the domestic trophies—and if PSG isn’t careful, it could tumble out of France’s two automatic Champions League group-stage places altogether. It’s just two points clear of Monaco and three points clear of Lyon.
No Europe for Arsenal—at all?
Arsenal has taken part in European competition in some capacity dating back to 1996-1997, but even after the midweek win over Chelsea, that streak is in jeopardy.
The Champions League is out of the question, Europa League looks unlikely and the new Europa Conference League (which, how ironic would it be if a “Super League club” wound up in the new, lower-tier competition) may even be out of reach.
“It’s not what we want, obviously, but there are a lot of things that have happened in that period for many reasons,” manager Mikel Arteta said prior to Arsenal’s ouster from the Europa League semifinals. “One is the level has been raised to a standard that is unprecedented in the [Premier League] and we are not the only club that has been out of that. But obviously no one accepts that situation and we want to change it straightaway.”
It’s not that simple, though. There are a number of permutations that could dictate Arsenal’s future—and even one that does see the Gunners return to the Europa League, should Leicester tumble out of the top four, finish fifth but win the FA Cup while Arsenal finishes sixth—but as it stands, the club is ninth, has played a game more than the teams it’s chasing and could be looking quite sadly at a barren midweek slate for the season ahead.
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