Life outside the ‘Big Five’ – the race for title glory

Since the first tentative steps into football’s new bio-secure ghostworld were taken, when pioneers such as the K-League and German Bundesliga led the way out of sporting hibernation, the trickle has quickly become a flood. Football is back – and even more abundant to the armchair fan than ever before.

In Europe – for much of the spring, the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic – the game’s foundations have been shaken and seemingly unthinkable choices have necessarily been made by shell-shocked clubs and administrators. Across the continent, lower leagues have been culled just as the season was set for its climax and even some of the bigger competitions have not been immune.

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Ligue 1, the Eredivisie, Belgium’s Jupiler League and the SPL all fell foul of ministerial intervention, as wide-ranging bans on large-scale sporting events were imposed from on high. Naturally, the sporting consequences of those decisions still resonate throughout the summer.

Dutch clubs Cambuur and De Graafschap were told by the KNVB that they would not be promoted, despite filling the top two positions in the second tier when play was suspended. Inevitably, they set course for the courtroom, where their case foundered.

Relegated Hearts (SPL) and Partick Thistle (Scottish Championship) took their case to the Court of Session, which will now decide who has the final say in their future. Both clubs say that arbitration by the Scottish FA “is not applicable” after SPFL clubs failed to support the league’s proposal for reconstruction, which would have kept them in their respective leagues.

Least surprising of all was the intervention of Lyon’s notoriously animated president, Jean Michel Aulas. The wily veteran of disputes and wrangles threatened to sue the French state for denying his club the opportunity of European qualification for next year – they lay seventh before lockdown.

Aulas proclaimed: “It was the state which ordered the end of activities, so therefore they are responsible for this.” He added that the affected clubs, including relegated Toulouse and Amiens, would attempt to “recover €800 million in probable losses.”

Yet, elsewhere, the alternative summer ‘football festival’ commenced.

Of the ‘Big Five’ leagues, champions have been crowned in France (PSG were awarded the title), Germany (Bayern – again) and England (Liverpool, breaking a once-unthinkable 30-year drought). In Italy, Lazio and nine-in-a-row-chasing Juventus are duking it out for lo scudetto, while a scintillating re-start from Real Madrid has seen them strike clear of a transitional Barcelona side in La Liga.

But what of Europe’s other resuming competitions? Several have champions still to be decided and European spots to be fought for; relegation to be avoided.

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Portugal’s Primeira Liga was set for a neck-and-neck conclusion, with Porto and Benfica in close proximity. Unsurprising really, as this firmly established Liga NOS duopoly have swapped the title exclusively between them since 2001/02.

Since the resumption, however, Benfica have nosedived spectacularly; parting ways with manager Bruno Lage earlier this week following a 0-2 defeat in Madeira, to struggling Maritimo. Porto duly responded with a 1-0 win on Monday, against Paços de Ferreira; quickly increasing their lead to six points with just five games remaining.

Sergio Conceição’s side have been far from convincing themselves but have still taken advantage of their Lisbon counterparts’ lethargic return to action. Porto’s strikers, such as Moussa Marega and Ze Luis, are misfiring at the wrong time – a case in point being the Dragons’ failure to score for the first time in 40 league games in a goalless draw with bottom side (by 15 points; a full 50 points behind Porto), Aves. Nonetheless, they now look firm favourites to seal the title unless Benfica’s incoming manager – fancifully claimed to be Mauricio Pochettino, in some quarters – can achieve a comeback miracle.

FC Midtjylland’s clash with FC Copehagen in the Danish Superliga last week saw the title’s destination definitively resolved. Copenhagen went into the game eight points behind, but with the possibility of reducing their Championship Round deficit (the ten-team league is now split into two sections) to a more surmountable five. However, the capital club fell to a hope-crushing 1-2 defeat at the Parken Stadion.

With such a healthy lead, it may be surprising that Midtjylland had actually scored the fewest goals of all teams in the Championship Round (47) but their outstanding defensive record – conceding only 18 goals this season – has been the foundation of the Wolves’ success. Owner Matthew Benham’s Moneyball-inspired methodology, also now coming to fruition at Brentford, looks to have again brought success to a previously unexceptional club.

Though Superliga supremacy has been unquestionably decided, it is worth keeping an eye on proceedings in Scandinavia. Danish football may well be at the vanguard of establishing a (relatively) safe way of allowing fans back into stadia.

Contact tracing and the organisation of fans into clusters could allow for a reduced proportion of spectators to return before the end of the season, following a series of test games to evaluate these once-improbable measures.

Danish regulations currently allow a maximum of 500 people (including players and staff) to attend matches and require two-metre distancing between fans. But in the test matches, a maximum of 500 spectators were allowed into each seating section of the selected stadiums. Plans have now been drawn up to allow a similar arrangement at all league grounds as soon as is practicably possible.

In late May, Austrian football re-started with the cup final, in which the irrepressible RB Salzburg destroyed second-tier Austria Lustenau 5-0. Incidentally, this triumph was the first ever European trophy win for a coach born and bred in the USA.

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Charismatic coach Jesse Marsch’s first season in Europe has since ended in double glory, as Salzburg secured the Austrian Bundesliga title last weekend – for the seventh time in succession.

Now nine points clear of Rapid Wien with two games to go, the energy drink-fuelled club were effectively handed an open goal when previous league leaders (and Manchester United’s last-16 Europa League opponents) LASK Linz were deducted six points for holding team training sessions in violation of social distancing rules.

Marsch spent 2018-19 as assistant at RB Leipzig, before replacing Marco Rose last summer, when the Austrian departed to take the reins at Borussia Monchengladbach. His side’s supremacy has been underlined by registering 102 goals and a pretty absurd plus-70 goal difference, even accounting for the mid-term departures of star men Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino.

The Russian Premier League emerged from lockdown in mid-June, with CSKA’s clash with Zenit being the standout comeback fixture. Around 2,000 fans were allowed to attend, based on restrictions set by the league permitting a maximum of 10% of each stadium’s total capacity. Loudspeakers reminded fans to keep a distance of 1.5 meters from each other; face masks and gloves were required too, with stewards handing them out to those that didn’t have them.

Since Zenit’s emphatic 4-0 win that day, the side from St Petersburg have streaked eleven points clear of nearest rivals Lokomotiv Moscow. An International-packed squad featuring the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Wilmar Barrios and ex-Barcelona winger Malcom, has evidently proved too strong for the trailing Moscow clubs.

All that could derail their ascent of the winners’ rostrum is the mere matter of an ongoing pandemic. This weekend’s match between bottom-of-the-league FC Orenburg and Ural Ekaterinburg was hastily called off on Wednesday, after several COVID-19 cases were detected during routine testing.

“Ten representatives of FC Orenburg have tested positive for the disease. They are being monitored dynamically,” declared a statement on the league’s website, continuing:

“The team are in quarantine and continue to follow all the requirements of Russian authorities.”

It added that both sides’ participation in remaining matches will depend on future test results, demonstrating that these are still fragile times for football in Russia and beyond.

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Elsewhere, title races are being significantly more closely run. In Turkey, for instance, perennial bridesmaids Istanbul Basahksehir (the retirement home for ‘I-thought-he’d-hung-his-boots-up’ forwards, Robinho and Demba Ba) ended June with a 1-1 draw against Galatasaray and now sit atop the Turkish Süper Lig table on 60 points. It is Trabzonspor (58 points) – powered by the goals of itinerant Norway striker Alexander Sörloth (having played for clubs in his homeland, the Netherlands, Denmark, England and Belgium before moving to Trabzon aged just 23) – who lead the chasing pack, as the traditional giants’ travails continue.

Gala are fourth (52, with no wins in five), Besiktas (50) in fifth, and Fenerbahce sit sixth (46), as the Istanbul’s mega-clubs’ oligarchy looks set to crumble – at least temporarily.

Finally, in Switzerland, St Gallen’s midweek win in Neuchatel edges them two points clear of Young Boys, and eight ahead of big boys, Basel. Outsiders St Gallen – the oldest club in Swiss football – have finished in the top three just once since the turn of the century and only won the championship twice, nearly a century apart (in the 1903–04 and 1999–2000 seasons).

The ongoing blitz of weekend and midweek matches will see the Swiss Super League conclude its campaign on August 2, with a potential title-decider between Young Boys and St Gallen tantalisingly set for the final day. It’s up for grabs now…

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