Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Title Races Taking Shape Across European Soccer

Leicester City continues to roll the competition.
By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

What began as a fairy tale has slowly morphed into reality.

Exceptional performances have now become routine, as Leicester strolled through the Etihad against Manchester City and turned it on it’s head. From start to finish it was the Foxes' game to lose, as they sent a clear message of intent to those who still doubt they have the quality to become champions.

It took only three minutes for Leicester to get on the board, as poor marking allowed defender Robert Huth to sweep in on Mahrez's free kick, before heading it home past the unsuspecting Joe Hart.

It was then deja vu for the hosts, as Leicester struck again three minutes into the second half on a breathtaking goal by Riyad Mahrez. It was the play maker's 14th goal in a hugely impressive season, that will no doubt attract the interest of big clubs come summer time.

The 3-1 win puts Leicester 5 points clear at the top through 25 games played. It’s a stark contrast to the 5,000-1 odds bookmakers gave Claudio Ranieri’s men of becoming champions at the beginning of the season.

For perspective, this is pretty much the equivalent of the Philadelphia 76ers winning the NBA title (ok, maybe not that crazy, but you get the point).

The real question is when, exactly, will those at the top of the Premier League start to take them seriously?

Everybody and their mother knows that Leicester wants you to attack them. They show as much, playing their entire side in the defensive half, with their center backs nearly among the photographers. Still, Man City insisted on bombing their fullbacks down the flanks continuously, inviting Mahrez to find space behind, like so many teams before them. Maybe it’s ego, or just plain stupidity, but something has to change.

With no other trophies to play for, Leicester will have their focus each and every week on a singular game. Their three closest rivals have mid week cup games to worry about and less preparation time. It may even be time to suggest that only a choke job could stop Leicester from becoming champions from this point.

This weekend will see the stakes raised once again.

Leicester face another huge test Sunday, as they head to north London to take on 3rd place Arsenal at the Emirates.

Later that day features another mouth watering clash, as 4th place Manchester City looks to rebound at home against another surprise, 2nd place Tottenham.

No matter the results, Leicester will wake up Monday morning top of the table. In the words of the distinguished Future, “what a time to be alive."

Meanwhile, in Italy, the top two teams in the table continued to separate themselves from the pack over the weekend.

Napoli maintained their two-point lead over Juventus at the top of Serie A with a 1-0 home win over struggling Carpi, while their nearest rivals defeated bottom feeders Frosinone 2-0 away. Neither side was particularly impressive, but at this point, you take the wins any way you can get them. Both clubs now sit at least 8 points clear of 3rd place Fiorentina, effectively making this a two horse race.

These fierce rivals will meet in Saturday’s showdown both riding historical winning streaks. Napoli set a new club record with its 8th consecutive, while Juve extended their club record to a 14th straight. With Inter Milan's Serie A record 17-match run in their sights, Juventus will surely come with their A game this weekend.

Nobody knows this more than Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri:

"It's a source of pride for us to be above Juve and we're happy to be able to play this kind of battle," Sarri said. "If we draw at the end of a difficult game, OK, but I would not sign beforehand for it. I want to go there to play. They will be stronger than us, but we have to have the chutzpah to go to Turin and play football."

The spotlight will also be on two of the continent's most in-form strikers, in Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala. The Argentine superstars have been nothing short of sensational, with Higuain now up to 24 goals in 24 Serie A games. The all-time single-season mark is Gunnar Nordahl's 35 (set back in 1949-50) and if it's not in the back of his mind, it's front and center over the tabloids. Not to be outdone, Dybala sits on 13 goals (with 8 assists to boot). Come Saturday, someone will have to blink, but you get the impression it may take a poke in the eye from the other.

Barcelona’s MSN again were the difference in victory.
Finally, in Spain, Barcelona continued its amazing run with 2-0 win away at Levante. Although they lacked the usual sharpness and precision we have come to expect from Luis Enrique's side, they prevailed once again not playing their best. This wasn’t always the case in the past, and Javier Mascherano knows it.

"It used to be that if we didn't play well, we'd struggle to win," Mascherano said. "Now we've learned how to win while playing poorly."

Speaking of Enrique, is it now fair to put him in the same sentence as his predecessor?

I know he doesn’t have quite the fan fare, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Sunday's game was the 100th of Luis Enrique's tenure. In that time, Barca have registered 80 wins, 11 draws and nine defeats, while, with the same sample size, Pep Guardiola won 71 games, drew 19 and suffered 10 defeats.

Furthermore, Luis Enrique's side have scored 282 goals and conceded 72 in his first 100 games as Barcelona manager, while Guardiola's team netted 242 and conceded 77.

Maybe most impressive of all, Barca extended their unbeaten run to 28 games with the win, matching the previous record set by Guardiola's side in 2010-2011.

Atletico rebounded after it’s crushing loss at Barcelona with a 3-1 come-from-behind win against Eibar. The win kept them second in the table, but all the headlines were grabbed by Fernando Torres wrapping up the scoring with his 100th goal for the club.

It had been 20 games and five months since No. 99 was scored, also against Eibar in September, but the joy around the Vicente Calderon was palpable. They always loved the kid who grew up supporting them and who, the way they see it, dragged them out of the Second Division. He may have left to conquer the world at Liverpool, but he never forgot them and fulfilled his promise to return.

After the match Torres repaid his gratitude by seeking out a grey haired 84-year old by the name of Manuel Briñas. You see, it was Briñas who discovered the freckled 10-year old Torres over two decades ago and recommended him to Atletico’s hierarchy. He was soon signed at the age of 11 and never looked back. Briñas left the Calderon with a hug from Torres, the jersey off his back, and memories for a lifetime.

Real Madrid got out of Granada on its hands and knees crawling, but escaped nonetheless. Luka Modric’s wonder strike in the 85th minute saved the day, keeping Madrid within arm's reach of Barcelona at 4 points back. Under Zidane, Real have looked unstoppable at home, smashing the competition by a score of 16-1 in three matches. Away from the friendly confines of the Bernabeu, that differential drops to a meager 3-2, with a win and a draw.

For Madrid to make a serious run at the title, improving their away form is imperative. It’s almost a certainty that they will have to come away with victory at the Camp Nou when they play Barca on April 3rd.

Getting their best player back on track would help as well. Ronaldo was barely involved in open play, and had three efforts at goal over the 90 minutes, without hitting the target once. He has now scored nine times at the Bernabeu since his last away goal in La Liga -- at Eibar back in November.
Progress under Zidane has been made, and that's a victory in itself, but with the way Barcelona’s trident is playing, the league may be all but over.

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