By Tom Sheldrick
As April 1st arrives across the top European leagues, entire seasons race towards their climax. There are plenty of old pretenders and perennial title chasers, two sporting odysseys headed into uncharted territory, and then the odd six-way battle for the title, all leading to one or two games that could decide who wins the league.
The run-in begins for real today in one of the tightest title battles, the Danish Superliga. Challengers Odense BK travel to champions FC Copenhagen, whom they trail by just one point with ten games to play.
Over in the English Premier League, there are three sides fighting for the title, four points separating them with six games remaining. Chelsea have had their noses in front all season, a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Manchester United clinging on to their coat tails through a combination of dogged experience and Wayne Rooney’s brilliance. Arsenal have been written off again and again, but keep bouncing back. Saturday lunchtime sees Chelsea travel to Old Trafford for a defining 90 minutes.
Down at the other end, former Chelsea favourite Gianfranco Zola is in the dugout at West Ham, who find themselves outside the relegation zone only on goal difference. Portsmouth’s season has been farcical at times; with ten points deducted for going into administration, they’re down all but mathematically. Burnley will be joining them, while Hull City’s decision to replace manager Phil Brown with Iain Dowie might just be paying off at the right moment.
Three years ago, Carlos Tevez dragged West Ham clear of danger, but now he’s looking to make the difference as nouveau riche Manchester City shoot for the all-important fourth Champions League spot. If Fernando Torres stays fit, Liverpool have a strong chance, while Aston Villa’s expansive style makes them the popular choice in a race that’s taken on as much focus as the battle for top spot. Spurs are in possession at the moment, but have got a ferocious run-in, which includes successive games against the top three.
France Ligue 1
South to France and Lyon and Bordeaux’s meeting in the quarter finals of the Champions League is symptomatic of the resurgence of Ligue 1. Bordeaux, Montpellier and Auxerre are all level on 56 points, although Laurent Blanc’s reigning champions have two games in hand. Lille, Lyon and Marseille are also within three points, with a month and a half left to run.
East to Germany, and there's a three-way race for the Bundesliga title. Schalke 04 lead the way, ahead of Bayern Munich and serial chokers Bayer Leverkusen. The three are in the middle of an incredible mini-league - by chance due to the fixture computer they play one another in three consecutive weeks. Two Kevin Kuranyi goals saw Schalke knock Leverkusen back last weekend. Bayern travel to the table-toppers this weekend, then to Leverkusen on 10 April. The shock at the other end of the table comes in the form of Hertha Berlin, rooted to the bottom since the autumn, but picking up recently, most notably with a 5-1 thrashing at the home of the champions, Wolfsburg. In a little twist of fate, Bayern finish at Hertha on 8 May.
South to Italy and Serie A, the top three separated by just two points after Roma beat Inter Milan 2-1 last weekend. AC Milan missed the chance to draw closer by drawing tamely at home, but they’ve still got the chance to deny city rivals Inter Milan their fifth successive Scudetto. All eyes on the weekend of April 17-18, when Inter host Juventus, Roma contest the derby with Lazio and AC Milan are at Antonio Cassano-inspired Sampdoria.
West to Spain and the closest battle of the whole lot take place in La Liga. Real Madrid and Barcelona both have 74 points from 29 games, the capital club leading the Catalans by a goal difference of two. Barcelona haven’t played the vintage soccer of last year, while, with money spent, huge expectations and another European failure, many consider Manuel Pellegrini lucky to still be in the Madrid job. Both have got tough run-ins; their clash at the Bernabeu on April 11 didn’t need added incentive, but el clasico just might decide the league.
Turkey and Holland
And so to two teams looking to become their nation’s finest for the first time. Only four clubs have ever won the Turkish Super Lig – Trabzonspor plus the ‘Big Three’ from Istanbul: Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray. This year, they’re all on the trail of the underdogs from the east, Bursaspor. Buraspor are now only thee points ahead, and travel to Galatasaray on 25 April, before hosting Besiktas on the final day of the season. It won’t be easy.
FC Twente have never won the Dutch Eredivisie but, with just five games to go, they lead serial contenders Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. Steve McClaren’s side gained a great deal of experience last year in finishing second and losing the Dutch Cup Final on penalties, and don’t look like buckling this time around. As for McClaren, the popularly-derided former England boss, he’s done a sterling job in building an attractive side on a limited budget.
It’s all to play for. Just you try to take your eyes off of it.
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org