If 2020 taught us anything, it’s to take nothing for granted; words to live by if you’re a club currently on course for a domestic title. Europe’s five major leagues have produced no runaway leaders during this first half of the 2020-21 season, no clear-cut kings careering ahead of the rest.
Premier League champions Liverpool hold the biggest lead of any leader heading into Christmas, but their four-point cushion gives those in pursuit hope they may yet be dethroned. The gaps are even tighter in Europe’s other major divisions, and it’s not the usual suspects who necessarily look most capable of clinching silverware in this unique campaign.
Outright title odds indicated in parentheses where available, courtesy of Caesars, Unibet and Borgata.
It’s taken a couple of years for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s paradigm shift to take hold at St. Mary’s Stadium. But Southampton’s improvements since his arrival are testament to the prospects possible under an innovative, effective system built to fit and given time to take effect.
Frequently dubbed ‘this year's Leicester City’, the Saints have taken their post-COVID form and established a new norm as one of the most relentless pressing teams in England. The changes are paying out in 2020 as they contend with almost any peer for production, via Andrew Beasley:
Southampton can celebrate Christmas in seventh, an impressive achievement given they lost their first two games of the season. Points against Chelsea, Arsenal and Wolves showed hints of a team ready to contend, though chances could hinge too often on the fitness of Danny Ings.
Leicester City (+3300)
Of course, 'this season’s Leicester City' could end up being the Foxes themselves.
Brendan Rodgers' side are somehow still at +3300 odds despite sitting second and being the only team who can match Liverpool's nine wins so far.
One of the best-run teams in England looks ready to prove that 2016 fairytale win was no one-off, and it's worth mentioning Rodgers has rarely been able to call upon his best team due to injuries until now.
Tottenham Hotspur (+1600)
The Special One may protest his side is “not a horse….just a pony” in this year’s title race, but a Tottenham Hotspur team run by Jose Mourinho can't be discounted from charging over the line first.
Sixty years since they last won the first division, the north Londoners are nestled in sixth having notched big wins over Manchester City, United and Arsenal. Back-to-back losses against Liverpool and Leicester have chipped away at their confidence, but Mourinho has overcome greater odds than the +1600 placed on Tottenham to win their first Premier League.
Spurs boast two of the Premier League’s top six scorers in Heung-min Son (11 goals) and Harry Kane (nine), and only City (12) and Aston Villa (13) have leaked fewer than their 14 goals this term.
After one win in their first three games of the campaign, the near-impregnable Yellow Submarine has upped periscope and surfaced at fourth in La Liga heading into the New Year.
Villarreal have renewed their vows as a tough-to-beat team since Unai Emery took over in July, avoiding defeat like some Arsenal players (allegedly) dodged loyalty to their former chief during his final months in London:
The club has recorded a joint-league low of one defeat this season, level with leaders Atletico Madrid. However, they’ve also banked the fewest wins of any current top-six team (six).
Real Sociedad (+4000)
One popular pick among neutrals that looked destined to end 2020 leading La Liga, a three-loss skid has since sent Real Sociedad to third having played one game more than most of their peers. But all is far from lost.
Imanol Alguacil started winning over swathes of new admirers even before this season’s rise into title contention, his possession-based plans earning plaudits despite the vast deficit between his side and La Liga’s more lavish spenders:
It seems like 2020-21 has been shaped almost specifically for Atletico Madrid with Spain’s two superpowers on the wane, but La Real look most like the real deal among the remainder.
Having delivered Sevilla back to their UEFA Europa League perch in 2020, Julen Lopetegui faces the far more difficult task of bringing the club its first top-flight trophy since 1946.
And what better season to pull off the feat than one where he can hoist the crown from those who fired him after only three months in the role? Real Madrid are the only team to beat Sevilla in their last seven league games, the latter recovering well from an October slump and proving they’re no simple homebody:
Atletico Madrid (five) are the only outfit to have conceded fewer goals than Sevilla (10), who can feel encouraged their domestic fortunes only appear to be improving under Lopetegui.
Bayer Leverkusen (+2000)
Peter Bosz’s attack-heavy tactics have proved a great fit at Bayer Leverkusen and produced 28 goals, second only to leaders Bayern Munich (39), against whom Leverkusen suffered their only league loss this season:
The Factory Squad look well-oiled in all areas, though, considering they’ve also had the second-fewest goals against in the Bundesliga: 12, seven fewer than Hansi Flick’s leaders.
Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig have emerged as a new triumvirate of sorts in German soccer, but five-time runners-up Leverkusen are well-placed to finally win their maiden Bundesliga in 2021.
The last team not named 'Bayern' or 'Dortmund' to clinch the title, 2009 winners Wolfsburg are back among the leader’s pack and reside in fourth over the Christmas break.
Oliver Glasner has enjoyed a fruitful first year at the club and taken on average 1.62 points per game (all competitions), the most productive Wolfsburg manager since Dieter Hecking, who left in 2016.
The Wolves look particularly fierce at home this term and dropped four points at the Volkswagen Arena, second only to Leipzig in that regard. Wolfsburg’s +20000 title odds would suggest their chances are futile, but just one defeat all season and six points to the summit nearing halfway offers promise aplenty.
AC Milan (+400)
There’s something wrong with calling the leader of any league a ‘dark horse’, but such has been the fragile state of AC Milan for years now that it also feels reasonable in this of all seasons.
A Scudetto for the Rossoneri, against Inter Milan and Juventus teams led by Antonio Conte and Andrea Pirlo, respectively, would rank among the club’s biggest achievements. Stefano Pioli has shaped one of Italy's youngest teams into challengers, though there's sure to be some doubt their trajectory can be sustained.
Milan’s odds look appealing after Juventus left them as the only undefeated team among Europe’s elite—even more so considering top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic has missed more games than he’s played:
There’s a sense that if Atalanta are to win a major trophy under Gian Piero Gasperini, it has to be now. And when we say now, we mean before key men Alejandro Gomez and Josip Ilicic—both of whom are nearing their 33rd birthdays—move too far past their primes without adequate heirs.
La Dea have finished an all-time best of third in Serie A in back-to-back seasons, but with Milan of all teams leading and Juve looking more human, chances to finally win a Scudetto don’t get much bigger than this.
Atalanta have lost a little verve amid the rising expectations and would be better off if they could stub out certain blips against lower-ranked opposition. The club took seven points from nine in consecutive outings against Fiorentina (3-0), Juventus (1-1) and AS Roma (4-1), but dropped points against Hellas Verona, Sampdoria and Spezia are the kind of oversights that cost.
For a club that only marked their Serie A debut in 2013, Sassuolo are fast becoming one of the most likeable underdogs in the league and are on track to break personal-bests in 2021. Not least among those is the potential for a maiden first-tier title, their only losses this season coming against capable competition in Inter and Milan.
Sassuolo—sixth and eight points off the summit—celebrated their centenary in July 2020, but 41-year-old coach Roberto De Zerbi is revolutionising their present-day prospects:
It may be too early to expect the kind of consistency required to take Italy’s top prize, but the +20000 Neroverdi are a team capable of the sensational on their day and in a Serie A season built for the underdog.
Rarely in the past decade has a Ligue 1 title chase looked as open at this stage of the season. That's partly in thanks to Rudi Garcia’s Lyon, one sleeping giant who looks roused and ready to contend in earnest this time.
Their joint-lead alongside Lille may be in part due to the fatigue Paris Saint-Germain have felt after a shortened summer break, but Les Gones will take every advantage going. To his credit, Lyon’s more directly damaged PSG's defense earlier in December, breaking a drought that dated back to when they last held the title themselves, via writer Mohammed Ali:
PSG remain favorites to retain and have still won more games than any other team in Ligue 1 this season. But lively Lyon—UEFA Champions League semi-finalists last season—have restored an air of resilience long missing, losing once in 17 games.
Andre Villas-Boas’ Marseille will go first in Ligue 1 provided they win both of their games in hand—what could possibly go wrong between now and May?
Strangely for modern-day Marseille, their form away from the Stade Velodrome has outclassed home productivity, with most points this season coming on the road. One such triumph was a 1-0 win over PSG at the Parc des Princes in Week 2, a result that’s helped them seal the best record against France’s heavyweights thus far:
Finishing fourth in their Champions League group may turn out well for a Marseille team who’ll need blinkered vision if they’re to keep pace in Ligue 1's lead. The team went on a six-win streak across October, November and December, but have since shown signs of wear and tear.
Villas-Boas—a title winner in Russia and his native Portugal—has taken the scenic route to reestablishing himself as a managerial force in Europe's spotlight. With some luck and enough dips in Paris, the stars may align to bring Les Olympiens—France’s most decorated club—a first league trophy since 2010.