Barclays Premier League:
Champions League: Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal
It’s definitely a two-horse race for the title- after half a season, Chelsea and Manchester City have a considerable lead over third placed Manchester United. At this point, all signs point towards Chelsea to win the league. Overall, Chelsea have only lost twice and have come up with result after result: convincing victories over Arsenal, and Everton, and 1-1 draws at the Etihad and Old Trafford. Diego Costa is scoring goals for fun, Eden Hazard is arguably the leagues best player, Cesc Fabregas leads the league in assists, Nemanja Matic is terrorizing opposing midfielders and Chelsea’s back four is the best in the league. The only glaring issue is depth in the midfield, and manager Jose Mourinho’s reliance on the same XI. City will fight valiently, but Chelsea have the better squad when it comes down to it. Despite brilliant campaigns thus far from Sergio Aguero and David Silva, City still have injury concerns up front, and they have yet to sort out a consistent back four. However, talent-wise, their squad is better than everyone’s but the Blues. At third, Manchester United. The Red Devils have been rejuvenated under Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, whose 3-5-2 formation has worked pretty well. When you consider the defensive frailties and the injuries that have ravaged the side, United have fared very well. Despite a shaky start, United have won 7 of 10, including wins against Arsenal and Liverpool. Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, Angel di Maria, and Radamel Falcao are all superstars, and not one of them has reached their full potential this season. That in itself should scare Premier League defenses. The top 3 have separated themselves from the pack thus far, but the final Champions League spot is still up for grabs. The current contenders? West Ham, who are going through a club renaissance on the season, Southampton, who are flying despite losing five key players this summer, Arsenal, who have struggled and have been kept afloat by their brilliant summer signing Alexis Sanchez, and Tottenham Hotspur, who are finally finding their feet under manager Mauricio Pochettino. In the end, when looking at pedigree, squad depth, talent, and the managerial position, Arsenal are the leaders across the board. The Gunners are seemingly perpetually bound to the 4th place spot (6 4th place finishes in the past 9 seasons) and have experienced Champions League football for the past 20 years. Despite several massive injuries (Olivier Giroud, Mikel Arteta, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny, Mathieu Debuchy), Arsenal have managed to stay somewhat afloat and in position to snag a Champions League berth. Talent wise, Sanchez has to be a top 5 player in the league, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla can take over games from the midfield, and Ozil, Giroud, and Danny Welbeck are all dangerous when healthy. Arsenal’s overall squad can really only be rivaled by Tottenham, who have holes in all three facets of the game. And despite Gunner fans calling for manager Arsene Wenger’s head after every loss, the French boss is the longest tenured manager in the league, and deserves to keep his place. The Gunners will sneak into the Champions League behind league winners Chelsea, runners-up Manchester City, and third placed Manchester United.
Winners: Bayern Munich
Champions League: Wolfsburg, Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen
Was there ever a doubt? Bayern Munich, who have an 11 point lead after 17 matches played, are shoe-ins to win the title for the 3rd time in a row and the 6th in the past 10 years. The Bavarians are the only side yet to lose this campaign, and their unending arsenal of weapons make them the most feared side in Germany. The crazy thing? Bayern have been decimated by injuries all season. Bleacher Report constructed a Bayern side of players that have at one point succumbed to injuries, and the team compiled would win the Bundesliga by themselves. With names like Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba, Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez, and captain Philipp Lahm among those lost to injury, Bayern are still rolling. Wolfsburg, led by Belgian midfielder Kevin de Bruyne and Brazilian defender Naldo, sit second in the table, with a 6 point cushion over Bayer. They have the squad to sustain a Champions League spot, although a telling game for them will be a January 30th showdown with Bayern to kickstart the leagues second half. Even if they don’t win that match, they should be a safe bet for the Top 2. Schalke are currently 5th, trailing 4th place Borussia Monchengladbach, but have the attacking talent to make it back to the Champions League. UCL semifinalists in 2011, Schalke are led by Julian Draxler and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Leverkusen are tied for the second fewest losses with 3. Led by Karim Bellarabi, who has tallied 8 goals thus far, Bayer are mounting a strong charge to defend their place in the Champions League.
Winners: Real Madrid
Champions League: Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Valencia
As a Barcelona fan, it pains me to say this, but no one can stop Real Madrid at the moment. Carlo Ancelotti has seamlessly infused newcomer Toni Kroos to his side, and the emergence of Isco has given the club a massive boost. But Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life, and his 26 league goals are more than some entire teams have scored in La Liga. Their offense is unstoppable, their midfield creative and talented, and their defense is strong as well. Even if they sell Gareth Bale, which is unlikely, they are still among the Top 2 teams in the world. Real are going to reclaim their league title, one that they haven’t held since 2012. Barcelona will finish second. First-year manager Luis Enrique has come under some fire recently, as he hasn’t used one starting XI more than once in the league. This is disturbing, as he is still trying to find a winning formula at the club. However, with an attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez, as well as strong midfield play from Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic, Barca are still among the world’s finest squads. What is concerning, however, is the declining play of Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, and the year-long transfer ban they’ve been handed. Last year’s league winners Atletico Madrid will fall to third. After losing their best offensive threat in striker Diego Costa, and two of their best defenders in goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and left back Filipe Luis (all three now play at Chelsea), they were bound to take a step back. However, under fiery management by Argentine Diego Simeone, the Atleti are still a lock for the Champions League, and remain a threat both domestically and in Europe. In 4th will come Valencia, who are being led by the emergence of brilliant forward Paco Alcacer, who has already earned a few caps with the Spanish national team.
Champions League: Roma, Napoli, Milan
Juventus have showed no signs of slowing down, and are looking to win Serie A for the fourth consecutive year. Led by ageless figures such as Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, the Old Lady are currently 3 points ahead of second placed Roma, who are almost assured to finish second. The top 2 are 12 and 9 points clear of third placed Lazio, and continue to seperate themselves from what is a diminishing Serie A. Napoli, led by Gonzalo Higuain and Marek Hamsik, should finish third, and a surprise pick to finish in the top 4 is Milan. The once golden boys of Italian football, Milan have fallen from grace in the past several seasons. However, they are much improved, and are only two points behind fourth place. Jeremy Menez has been a revelation since coming over from PSG, and he has led a revival at the San Siro. Milan return to the Champions League after a shocking one-year hiatus.
Winners: Bayern Munich
Runners-up: Real Madrid
Semifinalists: Chelsea, Barcelona
The two best teams in world football are Real and Bayern, and it would be a dream final if the two met up in Berlin on June 6th. The teams are nearly impossible to differentiate– Real’s unstoppable offense, Bayern’s endless creativity, and star players on either side. The biggest difference, and what sets the German outfit apart has to be the defensive midfield alignment. Real Madrid have the tendency to become exposed in the midfield when they play a double-pivot with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Both of them are incredibly creative and dangerous offensively, but they aren’t world-class holding midfielders. When one of them comes out, they lose some zest offensively, but when they are both in, the back four are often exposed. Bayern can take full advantage of this. They have the luxury of three world-class holding midfielders: captain Philipp Lahm, former Real Madrid man Xabi Alonso, and Bastian Schweinsteiger. All three of them can contribute offensively, but all three of them can defend and protect goalkeeper Manuel Neuer from Madrid’s devastating attack. It’s that cover that should allow Bayern to gain the advantage and win an incredible final. Chelsea and Barcelona will advance to the semis, but fall at the penultimate hurdle.
Semifinalists: Napoli, Zenit
After crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage, Roma will be motivated to strive for silverware in the Europa League. They have the best squad remaining, and if they can hold on to Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman, they have as good a chance as any to come away with the trophy. Everton have been very, very poor in the Premier League, and with a spot in the Champions League virtually impossible to attain, manager Roberto Martinez will try his best to win the Europa League and ensure European football next season. With attacking juggernauts like Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, the Toffee’s are still a very dangerous outfit. Napoli, who just missed making this year’s Champions League, and Russian giants Zenit, make the semis.