With the domestic campaigns almost at the finish line and only one more week of action to go in most leagues, it’s time for a quick hop around the continent before we get into an in-depth preview of the Barcelona-Manchester United Champions League finale at Wembley Stadium for next week’s update...
The EPL title race was settled last weekend when Manchester United secured the point it needed for its 19th English league title in a 1-1 draw vs. nearby Blackburn at Ewood Park. Fittingly, the title-clinching score came controversially, when Rovers GK Paul Robinson slid out and needlessly made contact with Javier Hernandez in the box. Hernandez proceeded to make a meal of it and Man U was awarded a spot-kick with 17 minutes remaining, which Wayne Rooney converted. How fitting; could the EPL race have been decided in a non-controversial fashion this season? There is still some other intrigue at the top of the table as the final weekend approaches, however. Though Chelsea has secured automatic qualification into Champions League group play next fall, Man City and Arsenal are currently battling for the other automatic ticket into the round of 32. City, by virtue of its 3-0 win on Tuesday over Stoke City (just three days after vanquishing the same Potters in the FA Cup finale), enters the final match with a one-point lead over the Gunners, who would have to endure a Champs League qualifying round in late August before reaching the group phase if they can’t advanced beyond fourth place. Elsewhere, Tottenham holds a one-point lead over Liverpool for fifth place and automatic qualification for next season’s Europa League. In the relegation race, it’s still a dogfight into the last weekend, with two from among Blackburn, Wolves, Birmingham (all on 40 points), Blackpool, and Wigan (both on 39) set to drop. The two unlucky ones will join West Ham in the Championship next term, the Hammers’ relegation fate sealed when they surrendered a two-goal lead at Wigan last Saturday in an eventual 3-2 defeat.
Barcelona sewed up its third straight Liga crown a week ago when drawing with Levante. Although the Camp Nou crew can’t secure a treble as it did two years ago thanks to its loss to Real Madrid in the Cope del Rey finale, it can still complete a handsome double by knocking off Man United in the Champs League title game on May 28. No mysteries remain for the other Champions League spots; Real Madrid (without the suspended Jose Mourinho, at least for a few UCL games...if he's even still at the Bernabeu next season) and Valencia go straight into group phase competition in the fall, with Villarreal set for the final qualifying round in late August. A real scrap, however, remains on the final day to decide the two automatic Europa League spots for next term. Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, and holders Atletico Madrid all sit on 55 points enter the final week. Two of them will automatically qualify, with Sevilla and Athletic holding the tiebreaker edges at the moment, but all still to play for this weekend. The free-for-all involving the final relegation spot will also be determined this weekend. Almeria and Hercules have already been relegated, but six other sides are still in danger of falling into the one remaining relegation spot. Real Zaragoza enters the last round in the most jeopardy, sitting at 42 points, but Gatafe and Deportivo, both sitting on 43 points, and Mallorca, Real Sociedad, and Osasuna, all on 44, are not yet safe, either.
The scudetto has basically been a fait accompli since March, with AC Milan in control of the Serie A race for the past couple of months and long since assured of yet another domestic crown. And though fellow San Siro sharer Inter has endured an awkward campaign as it unsuccessfully defended its scudetto and Champs League successes from a year ago, the Serie A runners-up Nerazzurri have safely qualified for Champions league group play in September. As has Napoli, which guaranteed itself a third-place finish with a 1-1 draw last weekend vs. Inter. Udinese currently holds a two-point lead over Lazio for the fourth and final Champs League spot (and into the August qualifying round before making the group stage), and needs a result this weekend vs. AC Milan to assure itself of Champs League football next season. Lazio appears more likely to be headed for the Europa League, likely along with Roma, which has disappointed in recent weeks and could still be pipped for that last European spot by Juventus, which needs to make up three points on Giallorossi this weekend. The three relegation slots have already been decided, with Bari, Brescia, and Sampdoria all dropping into Serie B next term. By the way, the last time a Champs League/European Cup finale was contested at Wembley Stadium prior to this season, Samp was involved, losing 1-0 to Barcelona back in 1992 on Ronald Koeman's wonder goal.
The domestic campaign ended last week in Germany, with Borussia Dortmund having handily claimed its first Bundesliga crown since 2002 with room to spare. The Westphalians almost went wire-to-wire to claim the crown, assuming command of the race in September and never looking back. They’ll be joined in next September’s Champions League group phase by Bayer Leverkusen, which ironically qualified for the Champs League finale in the same 2002 when midfield ace Michael Ballack, in his first tour of duty at the Bay Arena, was at the height of this powers. Qualifying for the title game at Glasgow, which it lost 2-1 to Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid (can that really be nine years ago?). Despite an undefeated run in its last nine games, Bayern Munich failed to overtake Leverkusen for the runners-up spot and could do no better than third place, which comes with an invitation to the Champs League qualifiers in late August. Hannover and Mainz, the 4th and 5th-place finishers, have earned tickets to next term’s Europa League. The three relegation spots were filled by Borussia Monchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, and poor St. Pauli, which also endured an 8-1 beatdown by those bullies from Bayern Munich two weeks ago.
There’s still a couple of rounds to go in Ligue Un, but Lille is well-positioned for the domestic double, already having seen off PSG to win the Coupe de France. Entering this weekend, Lille is three points clear at the top of the table with three matches to go and with a game in hand on runners-up Marseille, the defending champ which is wondering if Didier Deschamps will be returning as manager next season. L’Om, however, looks almost assured of a ticket straight into the Champs League group phase next fall. Third-place Lyon still has a mathematical chance of catching Marseille (six points ahead) but is more concerned with fending off PSG, two points in arrears but with a game in hand, for the final Champs League spot which would get it into the qualifiers in late August. Whoever finishes fourth gets a ticket to the Europa League. At the other end of the table, the fate of Arles, rooted at the foot of the table for months, has been known for months, but one-time power side Lens was also assured of the drop last weekend when it could do no better than a 1-1 draw vs. Monaco, which qualified for a Champs League finale (with the aforementioned Deschamps as coach) as recently as 2004 but at the moment is sitting in the final relegation spot. On 41 points and with two matches still to go, Monaco still has time to pull itself from the quicksand, especially since Nancy (42 points), Nice, Brest (both on 43 points), Caen, Toulouse, and Valenciennes (all on 44 points) are still very much within reach.
In another highlight moment from this season for one of the proud sides of European football, Ajax ended a seven-year title drought by stealing the Dutch crown away from FC Twente on the final match day last weekend at Amsterdam Arena, by a 3-1 count. Top spot in the Eredivisie also comes with an automatic ticket to the Champs League group phase for Ajax next September. But the Dutch league gets only two tickets to the UCL, and Twente can feel fortunate is has the other place (and a spot in the UCL qualifying round) after PSV Eindhoven blew a chance to leapfrog it in the final weekend by being held 0-0 vs. FC Groningen. PSV and AZ Alkmaar thus go straight into the Europa League next fall, with Groningen, Roda JC Kerkrade, ADO Den Haag (The Hague), and SC Heracles Almelo into the Europa League qualifiers. Relegated were Excelsior, VVV Venlo, and Willem II Tilburg, the latter with the dubious distinction of having the worst goal differential of any side (-61!) in a major European league this season.
Next week: Barcelona-Manchester United Champs League final preview!
|In this week: Ajax|
|Out this week: Everton|
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Yaya Toure, Manchester City... Toure didn’t score the most goals in Europe last week and he might have been fortunate to avoid being sent off for a brutal challenge on Stoke City’s Andy Wilkinson. But Toure scored the biggest Man City goal in decades when lashing home a loose ball in the box past Potters GK Thomas Sorenson in the 75th minute to give City a 1-0 win. For City it meant a first FA Cup title since 1969 and first trophy of any kind since claiming the League Cup in 1976.. Kudos also to Man City midfielder Nigel de Jong, who bossed the center of the pitch, forward David Silva, who was menacing all afternoon, and GK Joe Hart for keeping a clean sheet.