The Death of The Title Race
So what is the most memorable moment in Premier League history? Despite the plethora of quality players and great teams that have graced English football over the years, the general consensus from football fans would most likely decide upon Sergio Aguero’s injury time winner against Queens Park Rangers which delivered Manchester City the title in 2012 and sparked jubilant scenes as the standout memory.
Second choice would usually be Kevin Keegan’s infamous ‘I would love it’ rant when Newcastle United cracked and ceded the league to Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 1996 from 15 points clear. Elsewhere, arguably La Liga’s enduring moment in recent times was Atletico Madrid’s improbable title win when they overcame the Barcelona/Madrid duopoly in 2014.
The common thread linking these singular events is wrapped up in the greater context of an increasing scarcity: a title race.
Throughout European football, the idea of two or more teams vying for glory until the final matches is becoming rarer, and its being replaced by one clearly superior side cantering to victory and leaving others trailing in their wake. Scan through the tables of the continent’s top leagues and it makes for worrying viewing. Barcelona are eight points clear of their nearest challenger in Spain, Manchester City are 16 ahead in England, PSG lead Ligue 1 by 13 points while Bayern are a staggering 20 points clear in Germany.
It used to be the unwritten rule for most top Bundesliga clubs to position themselves to profit when Bayern had an off season. In the first decade of this century, Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg all won the Meisterschale in Bayern’s dips. Bayern’s financial might and global commercial power has made those down years a thing of the past, and despite a poor start to the season they are course to win a sixth title in a row by a record margin.
PSG were on a similarly dominant run in France before Leonardo Jardim’s brilliantly vibrant Monaco upset the odds last year. The Parisian’s responded by spending the GDP of a small country on new signings including their rival’s star player Kylain Mbappe, while the Monaco squad was pillaged by Europe’s rich clubs. Yet despite their substantial outlay, PSG failed to make a dent in the Champions League and were once again eliminated at the last 16 stage.
Elsewhere further down the ladder, PSV Eindhoven lead the Eredivisie by seven points, Young Boys are 18 points ahead in the Swiss lead.
And it’s not just the margin that these clubs are winning by that is the issue, it is also the repetitive nature of the names on the trophy. In Belarus, BATE Borisov have won 12 successive titles, while in Switzerland itself Basel have won the last eight and in Croatia Dynamo Zagreb had won the previous 11 titles before Rijeka ended that run last season. It is why, despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the fixture, that few people are as interested in the Old Firm derby. What difference does Celtic winning the SPL by nine points or ten make anyway?
The one ray of light to contradict an overall trend was Serie A, where Napoli and Juventus were neck and neck. For much of the season, Maurizio Sarri’s swashbuckling side swept all before them and finally threatened to break Juve’s iron grip on the Scudetto. They have won hearts and minds playing a brand of football that has left even Pep Guardiola in awe. Alas as Tottenham discovered at Wembley, the old lady is a grizzled competitive beast.
Prior to the round of games a fortnight ago, Napoli had won ten league matches in a row. The problem was Juve had managed the same number themselves. The leaders looked as if they were about to be handed a major boost as a much improved Lazio held Juve level, only for Paulo Dybala to snatch the three points in injury time. That sustained pressure was amplified and the Neapolitans finally cracked, losing 4-2 to Roma. And while a draw away to Inter is never a poor result, it makes the prospect of a seventh Juve title in a row all the more probable.
Which is not to suggest that Juventus haven’t earned it. As the Milan clubs have floundered over the past decade, they’ve been the smartest guys in the room. They are one of only four current Serie A clubs who own their stadium, and the Juventus Arena has provided a revenue stream to pull away from the pack. That, allied with mastering the transfer market and intelligent coaching appointments, has enabled Juve to not only dominate at home but also knock on the door of success abroad.
The processions in Europe’s top leagues now reserves the excitement and interest for the latter stages of the Champions League. The prospect of watching super powers do battle is tantalising and should produce some superb contests. With the possible exception of the Premier League and La Liga though, it’s difficult to envision league football matching that level of drama or tension anytime soon.
This again brings up the prospect of the much debated European super league. If Bayern, PSG and Juve continue to win every year and interest continues to dwindle, there is a school of thought that it would be beneficial for not just them but the rest of their division for them to vacate and play more competitive games. You get the sense that many of those elite clubs would be open to facing their continental contemporaries on a more regular basis. For now though, the idea of a close fought title race is becoming an illusion.