Real Madrid on a high as Europe takes a break

With Chelsea forging clear in the Premier League, James Whelan casts his eye over the pacesetters and chasing packs in Europe’s top flight competitions.

Real Madrid on a high as Europe takes a break

La Liga, Spain

TITLE RACE:

After struggling with defending champion Barcelona and city rival Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid hold a three-point lead going into the break with a game in hand — away to Valencia.

Real, the only unbeaten team in the league, have won seven of their last eight league games with the only setback a 1-1 draw against Barcelona at Camp Nou when Sergio Ramos scored a 90th-minute equaliser. Real face Sevilla in the Copa del Rey tonight.

Second-place Barcelona have already lost twice, including at home to promoted Alaves. Barca drew three straight — including twice at home — before finishing with two consecutive victories.

Atletico are in their worst slump since coach Diego Simeone took over, is only sixth, nine points behind Madrid.

PICK OF PLAYERS:

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi overcame respective injury problems and have enjoyed a remarkable year with the latter finishing the year alongside his teammate Luis Suarez as the league’s leading scorer with 12 goals.

On loan from Manchester City, Samir Nasri has been crucial in Sevilla’s third-place campaign, while Pablo Piatti’s first season with Espanyol has been highly successful with five goals and six assists, the most in the league.

EMERGING TALENT:

Iago Aspas’ outstanding season with Celta Vigo helped him land a spot in Spain’s national team for the first time in his career. He has succeeded despite a Celta team that is struggling and in 13th place.

Bundesliga, Germany

TITLE RACE:

RB Leipzig have got the rest of the league sitting up and taking notice, even if they failed their biggest test just before Christmas, losing 3-0 in Munich.

It seems only Leipzig can stop Bayern from claiming yet another title with the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Moenchengladbach, Wolfsburg and Schalke all faltering.

Carlo Ancelotti made the best start by any Bayern coach, winning seven competitive games straight before Atletico Madrid ended his run in the Champions League.

Leipzig’s original aim for the season was stability in the top flight, but now Europa League or even Champions League football is a real possibility. The title is probably just one dream too many for Ralf Hasenhuettl’s side.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS:

Leipzig’s push at the top of the table would not be possible without the contribution of Naby Keita.

The combative Guinea international has been producing standout performances from the outset, pulling the strings in Leipzig’s midfield and chipping in four goals as well as setting up two more.

EMERGING TALENT:

German international Serge Gnabry is showing he made the right decision to switch from Arsenal to Werder Bremen in the summer.

The 21-year-old striker has bagged seven goals and two assists for Bremen. Gnabry scored again for the second successive game, his late strike against Hoffenheim securing another draw just before Christmas.

Serie A, Italy

TITLE RACE:

With a 1-0 win over Roma, Juventus hold a four-point lead over the Giallorossi with a match in hand.

Napoli, last season’s runners-up, trail Juve by seven points.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS:

Roma forward Edin Dzeko is a player transformed this season.

Initially a disappointment after transferring from Manchester City in August 2015, Dzeko is now displaying the same ruthlessness in front of goal as in his best seasons in the Premier League.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina forward has scored 13 goals in Serie A this season and is second in the Serie A goalscoring charts, one behind Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi.

Dries Mertens has also been outstanding for Napoli, filling in for the departed Gonzalo Higuain and the injured Arkadiusz Milik at centre forward. The Belgium international has scored eight goals in his last three matches.

EMERGING TALENT:

After AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma burst onto the scene last season, it’s now the turn of teammate and fellow teenager Manuel Locatelli.

Locatelli, who is already being compared to Andrea Pirlo, scored his first Serie A goal against Sassuolo and netted a spectacular winner against Juventus. The 18-year-old was called up for a three-day Italy training camp last month and it surely will not be long before he joins Donnarumma in the full squad.

Ligue 1, France

TITLE RACE:

All the pressure is on Paris Saint-Germain, as they look to get title bid going but also with a last 16 clash with Barcelona in the Champions League.

Monaco have shown that they can outscore any team in Europe’s top leagues, netting 56 in 19 games, but Prince Albert’s favourite side is prone to occasional lapses in defence.

Nice’s bid for a first title since 1971 may be aided by the fact that they have no European football left to play, having been knocked out of the Europa League.

They also play host to PSG in the second part of the season.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS:

Mario Balotelli has notched eight league goals for Nice in nine games and Monaco striker Radamel Falcao is getting somewhere back this best following two miserable seasons in England on the back of a serious knee injury.

But it is hard to overlook how impressive Edinson Cavani has been for Paris Saint-Germain.

Now that he is out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s shadow, and finally playing in his preferred central striker’s role, Cavani has been scoring freely. He has 24 overall for a PSG side that would probably not even be in the top three if not for his goals.

EMERGING TALENT:

Attacking midfielder Thomas Lemar and 17-year-old winger Kylian Mbappe have really stood out for Monaco, likewise central midfielder Wylan Cyprien and striker Alassane Plea for Nice.

The 21-year-old Lemar has lit up Ligue 1 and his wide range of passing and excellent shooting earned him a France debut last month. The lightning fast Mbappe is drawing early comparisons to France great Thierry Henry while the 21-year-old Cyprien has great positional sense, awareness and power. He is the perfect provider for Plea, who is thriving alongside Mario Balotelli in attack and has 10 league goals.

Eredivisie, Netherlands

TITLE RACE:

Will 2017 be the year when underachieving Rotterdam powerhouse Feyenoord finally break a title drought stretching back into the last century?

Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s balanced Feyenoord team look like serious contenders, heading into the Dutch winter break with a five-point lead over Ajax. Two-time defending champions PSV Eindhoven are a further three points back in third, and uncharacteristically struggling to find the net.

Van Bronckhorst managed to keep the team together over the off-season with veterans Dirk Kuyt and Ahmed El Ahmadi staying put along with another attacking midfielder, Tonny Vilhena, to form the team’s backbone.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS:

Netherlands coach Danny Blind must be ruing the fact that Hakim Ziyech, a Dutch-born Morocco international, did not choose to play for the Netherlands.

Moving from FC Twente, Ziyech has slotted seamlessly into the Ajax midfield. Thanks to his darting runs and incisive passes, the team are still in the title race.

El Ahmadi, meanwhile, is having his best season at Feyenoord, adding goals (four in the league) to his trademark tough tackling and pinpoint accurate ball distribution in midfield.

EMERGING TALENT:

While Nicolai Jorgensen has quietly amassed goals, Kasper Dolberg has stolen the headlines with his graceful turns and clinical finishing, netting eight goals in 12 league matches. The highlight was a first-half hat trick in Ajax’s 5-0 rout of NEC Nijmegen on November 20. The first goal is a likely contender for goal of the season as Dolberg combined with his Danish teammate Lasse Schoene before controlling the ball on his chest and twice on his thigh as he cut through a group of three defenders and sent a powerful shot into the roof of the net.

The young Dane has not scored since the NEC hat- trick, but looks certain to raise his tally after the winter break.

Primeira Liga, Portugal

TITLE RACE:

With only one loss in 15 games, coach Rui Vitoria has Benfica on course for a fourth consecutive league title as the season takes a winter break near its midpoint.

Second-placed Porto also have just one defeat but a run of three consecutive draws has left them trailing by four points.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS:

Benfica’s title defence is a collective effort led by midfielder Luis Fernandes.

Fernandes, who has found his place at Benfica after bouncing around several Spanish clubs, is on target to have his most productive season ever with six goals in the league already.

Guimaraes forward Moussa Marega has responded well after leaving Porto on loan, scoring 10 goals to help the team join the fight for European berths.

And Sporting’s Dutch striker Bas Dost has earned a mention after scoring nine times in a strong first campaign since leaving German club Wolfsburg.

EMERGING TALENT:

Having scored 10 times in the Portuguese league, Porto’s Andre Silva is enjoying a brilliant season since graduating from the club’s reserve team.

Goncalo Guedes, Benfica’s 20-year-old forward, has earned hopeful comparisons with a young Cristiano Ronaldo, while Sporting coach Jorge Jesus said that his winger Gelson Martins reminds him of Portugal great Luis Figo.

Pro League, Belgium

TITLE RACE:

With such a dearth of talent, Belgium has found one way to make the league interesting through next spring — the playoffs. Normal league play is effectively over in March and the top six teams then play their own little league. To make matters more interesting, all points from the regular season are cut in half.

So up to March, teams are specifically centred on getting into the top six to be assured of five more lucrative home games.

If usually one ‘bolter’ makes it in, this season could be different with KV Ostend and KV Mechelen in positions four and five at the moment.

At the same time, traditional powerhouses AA Ghent, Standard Liege and Racing Genk — who knocked Cork City out of the Europa League — are out of the top six, and could be looking at a miserable springtime.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS:

New arrival Lukasz Teodorczyk has become a favourite with Anderlecht fans.

Too bad he is still on loan from Dynamo Kiev. With 24 goals overall since his arrival in August, including 16 in the league, he has made Anderlecht a title challenger despite often lackluster play under new coach Rene Weiler.

Defending champions FC Brugge has been counting ever more on Ruud Vormer, the 28-year-old Dutch midfielder who is at his best in his third season at the club. Also in midfield, Timmy Simons could win yet another title, aged 40. Only last month, he already became the oldest player to compete in a national team shirt.

EMERGING TALENT:

In a nation where players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Thibaut Courtois were already established stars as teenagers, the 2016 crop looks meagre.

In a sense, it’s curious that Youri Tielemans can still be seen as a young talent, since the 19-year-old has been playing with Anderlecht for three years already.

Tried, tested, and approved in midfield, Tielemans is looking toward making an impact on the Belgian national team in the new year.

More in this section

CourtsSoccerSportReal MadridPlace: EuropePlace: Camp NouPlace: SpainPlace: GermanyPlace: MunichPlace: Bosnia and HerzegovinaPlace: ItalyPlace: FrancePerson: James WhelanPerson: Sergio RamosPerson: Diego SimeonePerson: Cristiano RonaldoPerson: Lionel MessiPerson: Luis SuarezPerson: Samir NasriPerson: Pablo PiattiPerson: Iago Aspas’Person: Carlo AncelottiPerson: Ralf HasenhuettlPerson: Naby KeitaPerson: Serge GnabryPerson: GnabryPerson: GiallorossiPerson: Edin DzekoPerson: DzekoPerson: Mauro IcardiPerson: Dries MertensPerson: Gonzalo HiguainPerson: Arkadiusz MilikPerson: Gianluigi DonnarummaPerson: Manuel LocatelliPerson: LocatelliPerson: Andrea PirloPerson: DonnarummaEvent: Premier LeagueEvent: Copa del ReyEvent: ChristmasEvent: Champions LeagueEvent: Europa LeagueEvent: Ligue 1Organisation: Real MadridOrganisation: ChelseaOrganisation: La LigaOrganisation: BarcelonaOrganisation: Atletico MadridOrganisation: ValenciaOrganisation: RealOrganisation: SevillaOrganisation: AlavesOrganisation: BarcaOrganisation: AtleticoOrganisation: MadridOrganisation: Manchester CityOrganisation: EspanyolOrganisation: Celta VigoOrganisation: CeltaOrganisation: BundesligaOrganisation: RB LeipzigOrganisation: LeipzigOrganisation: BayernOrganisation: Borussia DortmundOrganisation: Bayer LeverkusenOrganisation: MoenchengladbachOrganisation: WolfsburgOrganisation: SchalkeOrganisation: ArsenalOrganisation: Werder BremenOrganisation: BremenOrganisation: HoffenheimOrganisation: Serie AOrganisation: RomaOrganisation: JuventusOrganisation: NapoliOrganisation: JuveOrganisation: Inter MilanOrganisation: AC MilanOrganisation: SassuoloOrganisation: Paris Saint-Germain
Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox