It may be approaching mid-July, but European football clubs are offering enthralling narratives in the quest for Champions League qualification spots, across Italy, Spain and England. We have look as how precariously things are poised.
Serie A >Gameweek 30 >Top 6: Juventus 75 points, Lazio 68 points, Inter Milan 64 points, Atalanta 63 points, Roma and Napoli 48 points.
The narrative of Serie A Champions League spots is embroiled in a series of mini-dramas.
Juventus are home and dry-docked into next season's Champions League plastic isolation bubble. Maurizio Sarri's side has outmanoeuvred Simeone Inzaghi's men. They are streaking away from closest opponents Lazio. Three straight emphatic victories vs Lecce (4-0), Genoa (1-3), Torino (4-1) have given them the win to ride the doldrums of post-lockdown football, where a lot of teams are finding it hard to steer their Champions League Qualification campaigns.
For nearest contenders, Lazio, the combination of Atalanta's Marten de Roon and Ruslan Malinovskiy provided them with a pitfall; losing to the Serie A sweethearts on re-opening day. Two wins following that debacle placed the contenders in a more respectable distance from the Champions-elect Juventus; but a 0-3 home defeat at the Stadio Olimpico at the hands of an urgent AC Milan, has put another dent in their credibility as next season's title-challengers.
Lazio seem to be playing with the anxiousness of a team juggling injuries and suspensions like hot eggs. Their season has echoed the form of Lucas Leiva. Starting off bright as the one of the most competent defensive midfielders in the league, winning Lazio player of the month and season awards, then succumbing to a knee injury. Coming back vs AC Milan, it was Leiva whose inability to cover the gaps led to two of the three goals.
The season couldn't end sooner for them. The only other time they came as close was during the enforcement of another lockdown 105 years ago, in the shadows of the First World War. This Lazio squad has their visions of a dream team incrementally realised, but ultimately not having the legs to carry it.
The gap between third-placed Inter Milan and second-placed Lazio has been reduced to 4 points. But Inter are guilty, too, of faltering in a rather neurotic fashion. Five red cards in their last five games point towards a side that's not used to mindfulness in high-pressure situations. A loss to Bologna and a 3-3 draw vs Sassuolo has blown the paper that was hiding the cracks in their facade. They travel to Verona this Friday.
Whereas surprise packages Atalanta are a win short of leapfrogging Inter with a win coming Sunday. Goliaths Juventus will be hosting the fearless "minnows" at the Allianz Stadium, with Sarri not planning to experiment with his side, a full-strength Juve is expected. Atalanta, in the Leicester City-like form they are on, would relish the challenge.
Elsewhere in midtable, Roma, Napoli (48 points) and AC Milan (48 points) are embroiled in a three-way fight for Europa League spots. Napoli, last night got one over Roma with Lorenzo Insigne's 82nd-minute effort. Roma's Henrikh Mkhitaryan cancelled out Jose Callejon's strike before the Napoli talisman placed the decider.
Top 6: Real Madrid 77 points, Barcelona 73 points, Atletico Madrid 62 points, Sevilla 60 points, Villarreal 54 points, Getafe 53 points.
While Real Madrid and Barcelona are at ease with their Champions League qualification campaigns, the fight for the third and fourth place is heating up.
Papers, websites, radio shows, and every other version of media printed in Spanish were rife with the news of Barcelona's financial debts. If not dealing with the administration side of the decline of the superclub, it was column inches on the ageing squad, that led the debates. The shady player exchange of Arthur going to Juventus and Miralem Pjanic going the other way aided aspersions. Accusations ranging from premeditated profiteering, mismanagement, to insinuating the culture of La Masia is well and truly dead.
The players responded with a 1-4 win away to Villarreal. The two players that were spoken of degradingly in the missives: Luis Suarez for the calcification of his speed, and Antoine Griezmann, for his petulance, got on the scoresheet emphatically. Suarez's goal proved that while may he may not be El Psitelero anymore, he still has the assassin-like instinct that makes him one of the most lethal poachers in Spain. Messi assisted both goals as if to prove a point. While effervescent youngster, Ansu Fati, another scorer on the night, fended off doubts (for the time being) that the pipeline from La Masia to the first team has been drying. 20-year-old Riqui Puig was another case in point. Much maligned Jordi Alba rolled back the years, his cross was turned in by defender Pau Torres.
It was a minor, momentary redemption. Real Madrid's win vs Athletic Bilbao, and Barcelona's failure to win vs Celta Vigo and Simeone's Atletico meant last year's champions headed to the game fully aware of the added pressure on the field. They now entertain cross-town rivals Espanyol on Wednesday night.
Table-toppers, Real Madrid are riding the momentum of their captain, Sergio Ramos, who is playing as if he's being demonically-possessed¦ but in a good way. The defender now, with his goal versus Athletic, is the highest-scoring player in LaLiga since the restart, with 5 goals. Real Madrid host 15th placed Alaves on Saturday, who have every intention to avoid being sucked into a relegation dogfight, and will make a match of it at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium.
Atletico are moving with the speed of molasses, but are solidifying their grip on the third spot with a run of consistent results, and slowing down those who posse their glacial momentum. Holding Barcelona to a draw and securing five wins since the restart has made them favourites for Champions League qualification next season.
With four consecutive draws since the restart vs Valladolid, Villarreal, Barcelona and Levante, Sevilla's run of form has had its tires punctured. They remain two points off Atletico, when in an ideal world, Julen Lopetegui's team should have been jostling with Barcelona for the second spot.
Fifth placed Villarreal are hovering dangerously close to Sevilla with a two point gap - they travel to sixth placed Getafe on Wednesday night. With four more games to play, JosÃ© BordalÃ¡s' men are still hopeful of beating Sevilla for the fourth place if the slide continues.
Top 6: Liverpool 89 points, Manchester City 66 points, Leicester City 58 points, Chelsea 57 points, Manchester United 55 points, Wolves 52 points.
Liverpool are Premier League champions. They, and Manchester City - the second best team in the league with nine defeats, have their Champions League places secured. City's qualification status, however, will be subject to change under the CAS ruling due to alleged Financial Fair Play violations. Everything else is up in the air in a league that does not relent. The champions grounded out a 2-0 win vs Aston Villa at home this weekend.
Pep Guardiola's men slumped to a 1-0 defeat to Southampton away on Sunday, making them lose as many games as Sheffield United. Elsewhere Leicester City tonked Crystal Palace 3-0, and will face Arsenal at home tonight in what could be a campaign defining fixture for as many as six clubs: the two participants, and the clubs that occupy the Europa League spots - the gap being less than six points between Wolves and Leicester.
Fourth placed Chelsea won't have the time to watch the match unfold as they play Crystal Palace in an early kick-off. Frank Lampard's men come into this game with a 3-0 win vs Watford.
Fifth placed Manchester United have had an up-mark in quality off-late, with their displays against Bournemouth and 3-0 win away to Brighton the previous week. They travel to relegation threatened Aston Villa. Dean Smith's men are a well-compact unit led by defender Tyrone Mings.
Wolves lost to an underperforming Arsenal on Saturday and will be looking to make amends against Sheffield United.