Serie A still kicking as Juve take title against odds

It has all been about records this season in European football: records broken and records that remained tantalisingly out of reach.

Serie A still kicking as Juve take title against odds

As Manchester City broke the 100-points barrier on the final day, and set a new mark for victories in the Premier League, Barcelona were aiming to achieve a historic unbeaten season in La Liga.

No team has achieved that in Spain — not with a league of 20 clubs anyway — and Catalonia was all prepared to celebrate a new high as well as their most crushing points margin over Real Madrid.

All they had to do was beat lowly Levante, Valencia’s ‘other team’, or at least secure a draw. Barcelona had already gone 43 league games without defeat But Levante had a record of their own in mind.

They were destined for the drop when Francisco ‘Paco’ Lopez took over as manager at the beginning of March. Their new manager’s main claim to fame was narrowly avoiding relegation five years ago with Villarreal, or rather Villarreal reserves.

But against all expectations Levante won their next match, and the next — and on Sunday their crazy run-in ended with 25 points from a possible 30 and a 5-4 victory against the new champions.

City’s century of points is a landmark in English football, although in recent years Madrid and Barcelona have achieved it in Spain, as have Juventus in Italy (and Celtic in Scotland in 2001, with Martin O’Neill in charge). City also seem well placed to retain their title next season.

Yet Juve’s title, secured with a goalless draw at Roma on Sunday, feels like an even greater achievement. Not only is it their seventh consecutive title but unlike some previous years it has been achieved against the odds.

The have also done the double and went desperately close to knocking Madrid out of the Champions League.

The accepted view is that Serie A is no longer what it was, and is less competitive than other major leagues. Yet as Roma showed this season in the Champions League, and to a lesser extent Atalanta in the Europa League, there is some strength in depth.

Napoli put Juventus under huge pressure this season and would have taken the race to the wire but for blowing up against Fiorentina last month, just a week after beating Juve in Turin.

“We lost the title in our hotel in Florence,” said Maurizio Sarri on Sunday, reflecting on the way his team cracked when they had everything to play for."

Juve’s pre-eminence is rooted in their experience of dealing with pressure.

But that strength is also a weakness for Italian football. Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Claudio Marchisio… all great names, but great names from the past.

There are some good younger players coming through but the scenes in Bergamo on Sunday, when Milan’s young goalkeeper, Gigi Donnarumma, was horribly abused by his own fans, show how unforgiving Serie A can be.

Donnarumma is still only 19, and generally seen as the natural heir to Gigi Buffon for his country — and quite possibly for Juventus too. But costly errors have cost his team.

The season in Italy has a cliffhanger still to come. The final match has Inter playing Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico next Sunday for the fourth Champions League spot. Lazio are three points ahead, but an Inter win would see them qualify.

There has also been a cliffhanger in France. Paris Saint-Germain had the title sewn up months ago — they lost 2-0 to Rennes on Saturday, their minds clearly in holiday or World Cup mode — but Monaco and Lyon have been neck and neck for second place.

Monaco’s last-gasp goal against Saint Etienne gives them the edge going into the final day, and given the players they sold, second place is a reasonable outcome for last season’s champions.

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Like PSG, Bayern Munich evidently had their minds elsewhere for their last match of the season — they lost 4-1 at home to Stuttgart, which is a virtual derby, even if Bayern are more concerned with the north-south rivalry.

The title race in Germany this season has once more been a procession — Bayern top, the rest nowhere — but the Bundesliga has again proved it can produce a surprise package.

RB Leipzig are the most recent new kids on the block, though they have fallen short of their owners’ ambitions. However, Hoffenheim, who could be described as the ‘old new kids’, have significantly overachieved.

They needed to beat Borussia Dortmund by two goals on the final day of the season to qualify for the Champions League, and have now made it into the group stage for the first time.

There is still space for ‘outsiders’ in the Champions League, but as with the two Red Bull clubs and with Hoffenheim, the poor little rich clubs are the ones who benefit.

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