European football season enters final push

FEBRUARY 10 — Now it gets serious.

The European football season can be split roughly into three segments, all around three months in length.

The first phase, from August to October, is the start of the campaign when new signings are assimilated, often under the leadership of new managers, and teams start to find their feet.

In these early days we can start to see who is hot and who is not, which teams are ready to challenge for silverware and which are in need of further surgery either in terms of playing style or personnel.

From the conclusions drawn during that period, the middle stage between November and January — those cold and dark winter months — can often be a period of transition.

Managers are fired, players are bought and sold, team line-ups are modified and playing systems evolve as the early pace-setters attempt to maintain high standards and the stragglers strive to pull themselves back into contention.

Then, from the start of February onwards, it’s time for the serious action to start — the time of year when trophies are won and lost, and the changes imposed during the earlier stages of the season start to take effect as the big clubs focus their efforts on the Champions League as much as, or more than, their domestic competitions.

That’s where we are now.

In the English Premier League, Manchester City are already champions elect after establishing a 13-point lead, but behind them the battle for a top four finish promises to be intense.

There is a similar story in Spain’s La Liga, where Barcelona are running clear with a nine-point advantage over Atletico Madrid, and the main point of interest is whether Real Madrid can rouse themselves to avoid the ignominy of finishing outside the top four and missing out on next season’s Champions League.

In Germany, Bayern Munich are also well clear at the top, recovering from a slow start to the season (phase one) by winning 13 of their last 14 league games (phase two) to move an unassailable 18 points clear, similar to the 11 point margin enjoyed by Paris St Germain in France.

Only in Italy is there anything resembling a title race, with leaders Napoli just one point clear of Juventus but the chasing back — Inter Milan, Roma, Lazio — rapidly losing ground.

For many of those clubs, the main focus now is the Champions League, which resumes this week with several fascinating ties in the first knockout round: on Tuesday, Tottenham face Juventus and Manchester City travel to Basel, and the following day Real Madrid host Paris St Germain while Liverpool travel to Porto.

Then next week we’ve got Barcelona away at Chelsea, Bayern Munich taking on Besiktas, Manchester United travelling to Sevilla, and Roma facing Shakhtar Donetsk.

So that’s a batch of exciting ties, many of which are unpredictable with only Manchester City and Bayern Munich facing what could be described as anything like an “easy” route into the last eight.

For many of those clubs, domestic leagues are now little more than an opportunity to keep things ticking over and spread minutes around the squad, ideally keeping key players as fresh as possible for the games that really matter: the Champions League.

We shouldn’t overlook the Europa League, either. Although it falls a long way behind the Champions League in prestige, the fact that winners of the former are now automatically given a place in the latter has given the tournament an added dimension of importance.

Clubs like Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund will therefore be pushing hard to take that trophy — especially the Gunners, whose chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League probably rest more realistically on winning the Europa League than managing a top four EPL finish.

Not all these clubs are in a good place as we head into the final sprint. Chelsea and Real Madrid, in particular, are in danger of seeing their seasons collapse in a whirl of disappointment with their respective managers Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane reportedly on the brink of being fired.

The demise of those two teams, both title-winners at the end of last season, shows again just how quickly things can unravel for no particular reason — back in August, it would have been hard to believe the suggestion that Conte and Zidane could be under so much pressure just six months later.

But neither of their teams have been able to mount any kind of defence of their titles, and they both also face extremely tough Champions League ties with Chelsea taking on Barcelona and Madrid facing Paris St Germain.

Those teams cannot be written off, though, because right now past form goes out of the window to a certain extent. Previous results count for less because this is the time of year that top players have been building towards for a long time.

From February onwards is when everything counts for more and the major titles are decided, when reputations are forged and maintained. This is where it gets serious.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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