The annual marathon that is the European soccer season will soon hit its home stretch. After this weekend comes one final international break, and then it’s time to decide some titles. While plenty of key races have been over for a while — it feels like Paris Saint-Germain all but clinched the Ligue 1 title in September, while Real Madrid’s LaLiga lead also looks pretty safe — many others will come down to the wire. Throw in some gripping relegation battles and the fact that lots of Champions League spots remain up for grabs, and we’ve got plenty to pay attention to in the final weeks of the season.
Here, then are 10 particularly intriguing battles to devour in the coming weeks. (Note: Odds below refer to FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, found in their entirety here.)
1. Premier League title race
Liverpool have pulled off a magic act in recent months. They trailed Man City by 14 points on the evening of Jan. 15. City have only lost once in the last two months… and Liverpool are now within one point following Wednesday’s win over Arsenal. They’ve won nine straight league matches, and while City’s form hasn’t dipped much, they did still drop points against Southampton, Spurs and Crystal Palace.
For as well as Liverpool have played this season, it still appeared the race was over in mid-January as City’s title odds, per SPI, rose as high as 88%. Instead, we’ve got ourselves an incredible home stretch ahead and after winning the League Cup in February, Liverpool are still very much alive in the hunt for not only the Premier League, but also the FA Cup and Champions League. An unheard-of quadruple remains in play.
From an overall dominance perspective, this isn’t quite the same as the 2018-19 race, in which Man City won the league with a near-record 98 points and Liverpool finished second with 97. The champion should end up with around 91-92 points this time around, but it’s still staggering how much these two teams have separated themselves from the rest in a league so flush with both cash and talent. They rank first (City) and second (Liverpool) in the overall SPI ratings, with Liverpool creeping ahead of a previously indomitable Bayern Munich.
As we approach the Champions League quarterfinals, SPI gives these two teams a combined 48% chance of winning the tournament, leaving 52% for the other six teams to divvy up.
The pair have gotten to this level by primarily being more polished versions of themselves. With its counterpressing and intensity, Liverpool is starting 5.9 more possessions per match than opponents in the attacking third, and they’re on pace to score 10 more goals than they did during their 2019-20 title run. Pep Guardiola’s City, meanwhile, have a possession rate of 68% and an average of 8.3 passes per possession. They have indeed dropped some points here and there, but their statistical domination has barely waned even as Liverpool was reeling them in.
Any more dropped points for either team could be awfully costly. Can they both avoid any home-stretch glitches as they did late in 2018-19?
2. Italian Serie A race
Relevant 538 odds: Inter Milan 49%, AC Milan 33%, Napoli 15%, Juventus 3%
Key remaining matches: Inter at Juventus (April 3), Napoli at fifth-place Atalanta (April 3), Atalanta at Milan (May 15)
Gab Marcotti reacts to Juventus’ exit from the Champions League at the hands of Villarreal.
When Inter beat Venezia on Jan. 22, SPI had seen just about enough. The defending Scudetto winners were unbeaten in 13 consecutive Serie A matches, dropping just six points along the way, and while their edge was only five points over rival Milan and seven over Napoli, SPI gave the Nerazzurri a 75% chance of winning a second straight league title.
They’ve only won one of six league matches since: taking one point from back-to-back matches against Milan and Napoli, losing to 10th-place Sassuolo and taking home sloppy road draws against 19th-place Genoa and 11th-place Torino. Their outstanding performance against Liverpool in the Champions League — they won 1-0 at Anfield on March 8, which was impressive even if it wasn’t enough for them to advance — was a reminder of their high ceiling, and SPI still considers them the title favorites. But they’ve leaked a lot of points lately and they find themselves four points behind Milan, one back of Napoli and only three up on Juventus with a game in hand.
Like Leverkusen, Inter have been rather unlucky: Their +0.9 xG differential per match over the past two months is better than either Milan or Napoli. But they have some catching up to do now, and they have to pull it off against a Milan team that has lost only once since mid-December and took seven points from matches against Juve, Inter and Napoli in recent weeks. Napoli, with the best defensive record in the league, aren’t exactly playing poorly either.
Inter’s trip to Juve on April 3 is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it gives Juve a great chance to work its way further into the title race. Since losing three of five league matches in a tough fall stretch, the Bianconeri have gone 15 league matches unbeaten, and their last match before the international break is at home against last-place Salernitana.
For another thing, it’s the only remaining match pitting top-four teams against each other. Serie A’s February schedule was loaded, but whoever thrives down the stretch will do so by winning matches they’re supposed to win, not by beating fellow contenders.
3. Women’s Super League title race
Relevant 538 odds: Chelsea 55%, Arsenal 45%
Key remaining matches: fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur at Chelsea (March 23), Tottenham Hotspur at Arsenal (March 26), Chelsea at Tottenham Hotspur (April 24), Manchester United at Chelsea (May 8)
The English women’s top division is poised for a spectacular finish. Arsenal are two points up on Chelsea, but the Blues have a game in hand; meanwhile, Manchester City trails Manchester United by three points, but also have a game in hand and a solid advantage in the SPI ratings, which see both races coming down to the wire.
Arsenal have rebounded nicely from a disappointing 2020-21 campaign. They finished a distant third behind Chelsea and Manchester City, and they had to hold off a rising Manchester United just to secure third place and a spot in the Champions League qualifiers. (They rose through qualification and have since advanced to next week’s quarterfinals against Wolfsburg.)
They’ve shored up their defense a bit, allowing just 10 goals in 17 matches, but more importantly, they’ve fared well in big league matches, taking eight points from four matches against Chelsea and Manchester City. They do still have to face two top-six teams in their final five league matches (home vs. Tottenham on March 26, at West Ham on May 8), but England’s most decorated women’s club is well-positioned to win its first league title in three years.
Thanks to Sam Kerr’s late winner against Aston Villa, however, Chelsea still controls its own destiny.
— Barclays FA Women’s Super League (@BarclaysFAWSL) March 13, 2022
The Blues have six league matches remaining, and thanks to a heart-breaking group-stage exit in the Champions League — they tied for first in the toughest group, with Wolfsburg and Juventus, but lost the tie-breaker due to head-to-head goal differential — they don’t have to deal with continental play.
Injuries and some COVID-19 issues have wreaked havoc with Emma Hayes’ lineup choices of late, and sanctions on owner Roman Abramovich will create plenty of logistical hurdles for the team just as it is the men’s team. They must survive a rugged home stretch that features two matches with Spurs and a season-ending visit from United, but this team still has Kerr, Fran Kirby, Pernille Harder etc. and therefore, they still have a chance.
4. German Bundesliga Champions League race
Relevant 538 odds: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund >99% chance of playing in the Champions League next year, RB Leipzig 68%, Bayer Leverkusen 67%, Hoffenheim 40%, Freiburg 20%, Koln 2%
Key remaining matches: Omitting Bayern and BVB, six matches remain between the other five teams listed above. (Three of them also play Bayern, while two play Borussia Dortmund.)
Gab Marcotti doesn’t think Erling Haaland’s future has been decided just yet.
With Bayern’s recent inconsistency, the Bundesliga title race isn’t quite over yet, even if SPI thinks it is (it gives Bayern a 97% chance of winning a 10th straight title). But even if that battle doesn’t produce much drama — for what it’s worth, BVB plays at Bayern on April 23 — the next four spots in the league hierarchy remain completely up for grabs.
Bayer Leverkusen are clinging to third place at 45 points, but Die Werkself have dropped eight points in their last four league matches and just lost star playmaker Florian Wirtz to a torn ACL. Meanwhile, three torrid teams stand just a point back — RB Leipzig have pulled 22 points from its last nine league matches, Freiburg have 14 from seven, and Hoffenheim have 13 from its last five and 30 from its last 15.
Recent results aren’t the be-all and end-all of course. Leverkusen have been pretty unlucky of late, and not just in the injuries department. Their +1.5 xG differential per match over the past two months is second in the league to only Bayern’s (+1.6), and they’ve pulled just six points from the last seven close matches — matches decided by either zero or one goal — that they’ve played, an unsustainably poor trend. Even without Wirtz, they’ve still got Patrik Schick (20 goals in all competitions) and Moussa Diaby (16 goals and nine assists) in attack, and their transition game is one of the strongest in the league.
Still, holding on will be difficult. RB Leipzig have solved a lot of their disastrous transition issues in recent weeks, and while neither Freiburg nor Hoffenheim defend very well (even by Bundesliga standards) they boast major attacking firepower and have proven they can take points from the league’s best teams. Both Leverkusen and Hoffenheim have three remaining matches against top-six teams, while RBL and Freiburg each have two. (Freiburg also play Bayern on April 2, the same day RBL host Borussia Dortmund.)
In short, this one is far from decided.
Steve Nicol feels Everton need to keep their play simple and show some basic fight in order to retain their Premier League status.
5. Premier League relegation race
Relevant 538 odds: Norwich City 99% chance of relegation, Watford 78%, Burnley 44%, Everton 38%, Leeds United 36%, Brentford 4%, Newcastle 2%
Key remaining matches: Excluding Norwich, there are eight remaining matches between the other six teams listed above, starting with Newcastle at Everton on Thursday and headlined primarily by Leeds at Watford (April 9), Burnley at Watford (April 30) and a soon-to-be-rescheduled Everton at Watford
It’s a mess trying to figure out who might snare the third promotion spot from England’s second division; it’s just as messy trying to figure out who else will get sent down. Norwich are all but guaranteed, obviously, and Watford are in major trouble, but the Hornets host three different relegation rivals in the season’s home stretch — they’ll have a chance to save themselves, at least, and even if they can’t, they’ll have a major role to play in who survives.
With the money involved in playing in the Premier League, this is always one of the tenser and more dread-heavy relegation battles in the sport. That counts double when potentially big clubs like Everton and Leeds are involved. The tension is high enough that it’s already producing moments like this, from Leeds’ dramatic late home win over Norwich on Sunday, in mid-March.
🙌 𝗗𝘂𝗴𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗟𝗶𝗺𝗯𝘀! pic.twitter.com/ZcLR0LRFfI
— Leeds United (@LUFC) March 14, 2022
Just imagine what April will be like.
6. Belgium Jupiler Pro league title race
Relevant 538 odds: Union Saint-Gilloise 65%, Club Brugge 24%, Anderlecht 7%, Antwerp 2%, Gent 2%
Key remaining matches: Gent at Anderlecht (April 18), followed by a round-robin playoff among the top four
Promoted from the second division just last season, Union SG remains one of the most incredible stories of the 2021-22 European club campaign. The Brussels club, which hasn’t won a top-division crown since 1935, is led by the incredible attacking duo of Deniz Undav and Dante Vanzeir (combined: 37 goals, 18 assists), and they’ve led the league from virtually start to finish thanks to a combination of thrilling and creative offense and committed defense.
With just a handful of matches remaining in the initial 34-game season, they retain a seven-point advantage over Club Brugge with a game in hand. This is a great position to be in, obviously, but they’ll still have to survive the championship playoff in which the top four teams see their point totals cut in half (and rounded up) and everyone plays a six-game round robin.
Union SG have fared incredibly well against Belgium’s other top teams this year, but they’ll have to do so one last time to secure a stunning title.
7. English Championship promotion race
Relevant 538 odds: Fulham >99% chance of promotion to the Premier League, Bournemouth 79%, Luton Town 21%, Sheffield United 20%, Nottingham Forest 18%, Middlesbrough 18%, Huddersfield 12%, Blackburn 11%, QPR 7%, Millwall 6%, West Brom 4%, Coventry City 2%.
Key remaining matches: Omitting Fulham, 20 matches remain between the other 11 teams above, beginning with Bournemouth’s trip to Huddersfield on Saturday. And then, of course, there’s the promotion playoff between the No. 3-6 teams at the end of the season.
In 1987, Luton Town finished a club-best seventh in the English top division; in 1992, the Hatters were relegated. They haven’t been back since. In 1995, Nottingham Forest finished third in the Premier League and qualified for the UEFA Cup. They were relegated two years later, bounced back for one year, fell back to the second division in 1999 and haven’t been back since. In 1995, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League. They continued to threaten for lower-level European competitions through most of the 2000s, but they fell out of the Premier League in 2012. They haven’t been back since.
Millwall haven’t been in the top division since 1990, Coventry City since 2001. QPR bounced between the first and second divisions early in the 2010s, but have otherwise lived a second-division existence for most of 30 years. Huddersfield briefly earned promotion in 2017 for the first time in nearly a half-century, but they were back down within two years.
All of the above teams are involved in this year’s promotion race. Granted, Fulham — a modern-day “yo-yo” club that’s been promoted and relegated several times — have all but locked up a promotion spot in its first year back down, and if Bournemouth win at Huddersfield on Saturday, the Cherries are in great position to return to the Premier League after just a two-year absence.
The third promotion spot, which will be decided via a playoff between the teams ranked third through sixth at the end of the season, could feature quite a few storied clubs that have been desperate to return to the top division. For history alone, this should be a fascinating battle all the way to the promotion playoff finals at Wembley Stadium.
8. Ligue 1 Champions League race
Relevant 538 odds: PSG >99% chance of playing in the Champions League next year, Rennes 65%, Marseille 40%, Nice 39%, Strasbourg 28%, Lyon 12%, Lille 8%, Monaco 5%, Nantes 2%
Key remaining matches: Omitting PSG, 16 matches remain between the other eight clubs above, beginning with Lille at Nantes on Saturday and Nice at Marseille on Sunday.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens give their take on Lionel Messi after the forward has endured a difficult first season in Paris.
As mentioned, there are plenty of major Champions League spots up for grabs. Arsenal seems to have taken control of fourth place in the Premier League but still has plenty of work to do. Juventus has eased ahead of Atalanta for fourth in Serie A, while Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have stormed ahead of challengers like Real Betis and Villarreal in La Liga, but those battles also aren’t over just late.
Two of Europe’s big five leagues, however, have absolute barn-burners on their hands, though: France and Germany. We’ll get to Germany in a bit.
The top two French finishers earn an automatic spot in the Champions League, with third going into the qualification playoff rounds. For much of the season, bitter rivals Marseille and Nice have been jockeying for second, but after a dreadful winter stretch — they pulled just nine points from nine league matches from Dec. 1 through Feb. 11 — Bruno Genesio’s Rennes have found their form. Their 4-2 win over Lyon on Sunday was their fourth straight in league play, and it bumped them back to fourth place, within a point of Marseille and Nice. Strasbourg is only three points back as well.
Those four clubs seem to be the primary contenders for the two remaining Champions League spots, but established clubs like Lyon, Lille and Monaco all have both talent and plenty of remaining opportunities to make moves.
9. German 2. Bundesliga promotion race
Relevant 538 odds: Werder Bremen 67% chance of promotion, Darmstadt 98 51%, St. Pauli 37%, Schalke 04 36%, Hamburg 25%, Nurnberg 9%, Heidenheim 4%
Key remaining matches: Thirteen matches remain between the seven teams above, beginning with Heidenheim at St. Pauli on Friday and Darmstadt at Werder Bremen on Saturday
Relegation has struck down some of Germany’s more historically powerful clubs in recent years — Schalke 04, Hamburg, Werder Bremen — and all of them are involved in this year’s battle for promotion from the second division. So are quite a few other teams, including everyone’s favorite pirate ship of a club, St. Pauli.
At the moment, Darmstadt, St. Pauli and a torrid Werder Bremen — unbeaten in 10 straight before last Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Heidenheim — are all tied at 48 points, with Nurnberg three points back, Schalke four back and both Heidenheim and a flagging Hamburg holding onto hope. The top two finishers earn automatic promotion, while the third-place team faces the Bundesliga’s third-from-bottom team (at present, it’s VfB Stuttgart) in a playoff. Absolutely nothing has been decided yet, and the seven teams above will have all sorts of head-to-head opportunities to make moves.
10. Dutch Eredivisie title race
Relevant 538 odds: Ajax 84% chance of winning the title, PSV Eindhoven 15%
Key remaining matches: third-place Feyenoord at Ajax (March 20), PSV at Feyenoord (May 8), Ajax at fourth-place AZ Alkmaar (May 8)
Ajax has spent much of 2021-22 playing like one of the best teams in Europe, winning their six Champions League group stage matches by a combined 20-5 and outscoring opponents 70-5 in their first 23 Eredivisie matches. A few fluky results — a 1-0 loss to Utrecht, 0-0 draws with Heracles and Go Ahead Eagles — prevented them from putting a high-caliber PSV away, but Ajax’s quality was such that, as of late-February, FiveThirtyEight was giving them a 96% chance of winning the league.
In their last six matches, however, they’ve lost 2-1 at Go Ahead Eagles, survived 3-2 wins over inferior RKC Waalwijk and SC Cambuur squads and suffered an upset at the hands of Benfica in the Champions League knockout stage. They created more quality chances than Benfica over two legs and probably should have won, but it’s still clear that they’ve lost some of their edge, especially in defense. Meanwhile, PSV has won five in a row in league play and is unbeaten in 10 matches across all competitions. Ajax remain favorites, but despite lopsided odds, this one’s far from settled.