JANUARY 2 — The dawn of the New Year also roughly marks the midway point of the European football season, and it’s a pretty sad reflection on the state of the major leagues that most of them have already been effectively decided.
Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain are all so far ahead in their respective competitions, even with so many games still remaining, they may as well be handed the trophies right now, and the only real interest in the second half of the season in those leagues is the battles for European qualification and against relegation.
The only top European league with anything resembling a title race is in Italy, where Juventus are having their recent dominance — they have won the last six consecutive titles — strongly pushed by Roma, Napoli and Inter Milan, and it will be particularly interesting to see whether a Napoli team which plays expansive attacking football and currently sits top of the table can sustain their challenge until the end.
Far more interesting than the domestic leagues, however, is the Champions League which will resume with a pair of cracking ties in the last 16 in February, starting with Chelsea against Barcelona in their first meeting since the London club won the semi-final en route to the title in 2012.
Barcelona have become a very different team this season under new manager Ernesto Valverde, who has fashioned a functional but largely unspectacular team which relies almost exclusively on Lionel Messi for creativity.
However, by then Barça should also be able to introduce the X-factor of exciting winger Ousmane Dembele, who was signed for €150 million (RM731 million) from Borussia Dortmund in the summer but was then injured almost immediately and hasn’t played again. He should be fully fit by the team the Chelsea fixtures rolls around and his presence will certainly give Blues boss Antonio Conte something to think about.
Another tie could be even better, with Paris St Germain paired with current holders Real Madrid in a serious heavyweight battle which could have easily ended up being the final with a different draw.
As their Clásico defeat to Barcelona just before Christmas showed, Real have some major problems to deal with, and on current form they must be considered underdogs against a Paris team which is excitingly led by explosive attacking trio Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
The whole PSG ‘project’ which has been lavishly funded by the club’s owners, a branch of the Qatari government, has been firmly focused on one ambition: Becoming the champions of Europe. With the brilliant front three playing as they have been so far this season, they are undoubtedly serious candidates for this season’s trophy.
But Real will not give up their crown without a fight and the Spanish giants will surely improve on the form they’ve shown so far this season, so the meetings with PSG next month should provide fabulous entertainment.
Either way, the fact that Chelsea, Barcelona, PSG and Real are playing against each other means that two major contenders will fall at this early stage, and Manchester City fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of their team proving themselves on the European stage. Pep Guardiola’s team have as good a chance of winning the Champions League as anyone, and what a story that would be.
Once the European club season is concluded, of course, attentions will turn to the World Cup Finals, and it could be a great tournament with Brazil, Germany, France and Spain all possessing squads of great potential.
Perhaps the biggest storyline to follow in Russia this summer, though, will be the question of whether Messi can claim the only major honour missing from his collection by leading Argentina to their first world title in 32 years.
There’s a widespread opinion that Messi can never be regarded as the greatest player in history until he emulates the feat of Diego Maradona, his predecessor in the Albiceleste number 10 shirt, by winning the World Cup.
That’s a rather simplistic argument but it is nonetheless widely accepted, and this summer’s competition will perhaps be the last chance for Messi, who will be 31 by the time of the final, to secure his long-term legacy without those “yes but ”question marks being placed against his name.
So far, this season, Messi has been playing as well as ever, and there is plenty of potential within the Argentine squad for manager Jorge Sampaoli to work out how his star man should be accompanied.
But Argentina were anything but convincing in the qualifiers, needing a hat-trick from Messi against Ecuador in the final group match to secure their place in the finals, and at the moment they look a fair way behind the other leading contenders.
With Messi, though, anything is possible, and his efforts to finally enjoy the taste of success on the international stage is set to become the most riveting sports story of 2018.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.