As the calendar turns to February, we begin to look toward the May finish line for the European soccer season. These are the four biggest stories I’ll be watching from across the pond:
Can Leicester City actually win this thing? Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri insisted all autumn that his goal was to merely avoid relegation, just as the Foxes did with their “great escape” in 2015. So far, though, Leicester City has been the league’s most successful team for more than 12 months, and leads the English standings by three points. Manchester City and Tottenham also have a chance, as will Arsenal if the Gunners can end their sudden slide, but it’s long past time to quit doubting the Foxes. They’ve proven themselves, having beaten Tottenham and Liverpool, and earned draws with Manchester City and Manchester United. All that’s left is to hold their nerve – and to keep getting goals from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
Will someone other than Barcelona or Bayern Munich win the Champions League? The competition begins again in mid-February, and both Barcelona and Bayern will consider the season unsuccessful without winning the whole thing — along, of course, with their respective domestic-league titles. Assuming Barcelona doesn’t falter in Spain, their rivals at Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid will view the Champions League as their own best hope for a trophy — even slightly easier, if someone else can knock out Barcelona. Below them are a pair of teams, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, that desperately need Champions League success to finally join the European elite. For Chelsea, the Champions League feels like the only chance to forget a terrible domestic year. Beyond those seven, only Arsenal and Juventus will feel like they have much hope, and the former drew Barcelona in the first knockout round, while the latter drew Bayern – reducing both teams’ chances greatly.
Can Napoli hold off Juventus at the top of Serie A? Juventus, the prohibitive preseason favorite to win another title, endured an awful start to the season that gave many Italian clubs a hope of stealing the championship. Now, though, Juventus has won 13 consecutive league games, and Napoli appears to be the only team with a prayer of ending Juventus’s four-year grip on the Scudetto. The Blues have a two-point lead, and Gonzalo Higuaín’s 22 goals have set the pace for all strikers in Italy; it’ll be up to the Argentine to fire Napoli to its first title since 1990.
Can Paris Saint-Germain finish the season undefeated? Since World War II, only four teams in the Big Five European leagues have gone undefeated — Arsenal, in 2003-4, and three Italian teams, most recently Juventus in 2011-12. PSG, though, might be having the most dominant season of all, with 21 wins and three draws through 24 games. The French giants are already just weeks away from clinching the title; at this point, anything short of France’s first unbeaten season since 1897 would be a disappointment.
• United fullback Brian Kallman retired this week after 10 seasons with Minnesota franchises, severing one of the final links to the team’s past life as the Minnesota Thunder. The Woodbury native will be remembered for his no-nonsense, physical play, and his unwavering commitment to connecting with fans.
• Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola announced that he would take over the top job at Manchester City next season, saying, “I need a new challenge.” Guardiola, who was previously managing at Barcelona before moving to Germany’s richest, most successful team, will take over a Manchester City team that is the best-funded in England and that is the favorite to win multiple trophies this year. In other words, it’s fair to say that Guardiola does not understand the meaning of the word “challenge.”
• The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted MLS commissioner Don Garber as saying it is “the right time” for an expansion team in St. Louis. The east-central Missouri city would appear to have the inside track on a franchise when the league expands past its current 24-team plan; Sacramento is the other current front-runner, with San Antonio close behind.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Leicester City at Manchester City, 6:45 a.m. Saturday, NBC Sports. The early game of the Premier League weekend is one of the most important games of the season. Leicester leads Man City by three points at the top of the standings, but the hosts will feel like this game is a chance to reverse those positions. The visitors have shown no signs of slipping, though.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Hertha Berlin, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Dortmund has won two in a row after Germany’s winter break, and now finds itself 10 points clear of third-place Hertha. Dortmund probably won’t catch Bayern Munich at the top of the league, but Hertha is in the sights of several teams. USA center back John Brooks is a key player for the home team.
La Liga: Eibar at Atlético Madrid, 9 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. Eibar, up to eighth in the Spanish standings, is one of the biggest underdog stories on the continent. The city of Eibar is the size of Winona, yet its team is rubbing shoulders with Spain’s best teams. Atlético is reeling after earning two red cards in a hope-destroying 2-1 loss to Barcelona; tiny Eibar will try to take advantage.
Premier League: Arsenal at Bournemouth, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. At the turn of the year, the Gunners appeared to have the inside track on their first league title since 2004. Their attack has gone cold, though; Arsenal hasn’t scored in three games, and has dropped to fourth place. Bournemouth has designs on staying in the Premier League; holding Arsenal scoreless would help.