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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Is Covid-19 the reason European soccer’s ‘Big Five’ leagues are all witnessing tight title races?

Fans being re-introduced across Europe
Will the re-introduction of fans change title races? Paul Childs/EPA.

Last season saw Liverpool stroll to their first ever Premier League title, finishing 18 points ahead of the chasing pack. In Germany, Bayern Munich won their eight successive Bundesliga title by 13 points over second place Borussia Dortmund. While the 2019/20 Ligue 1 campaign was ended early due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 12 points was still the difference between Paris Saint-Germain and their rivals at the top of the table.

The title races in Italy and Spain were somewhat tighter, going down to the final day of the season, but the final outcomes weren’t exactly unpredictable, with Juventus clinching their ninth Scudetto in a row and Real Madrid crowned La Liga champions. Truly compelling title races have been hard to come by at the elite level of European soccer in recent years.

This season, though, has been rather different. While Liverpool once again sit atop the Premier League, just four points separate the eight teams beneath the reigning champions. Bayern Munich are another familiar name at the top of a European league, but Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig are just two points off the Bavarians in the Bundesliga table.

In Spain, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are level on points at the top of La Liga with Real Sociedad and Villarreal also in the mix. Barcelona are currently slumped in fifth, eight points off the pace. AC Milan and Inter are leading the way in Serie A. Juventus are sixth, a full 10 points adrift of the Rossoneri.

Then there’s Ligue 1, a division widely derided as a ‘farmers’ league’ for its lack of quality and depth. PSG, French soccer’s dominant force, are down in third with as many as six or seven teams in the picture at the top end of the table. What has been a near procession in recent years could be one of Europe’s most fascinating leagues to watch this season.

Across the continent, the trend is clear. There will be fewer runaway champions this season. More teams are within a chance of finishing the 2020/21 campaign with silverware in their hands. Whether it’s in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga or Serie A, this season is unfolding as the most unpredictable, volatile in recent memory.

Covid-19 has almost certainly played a role in this. The unique circumstances of this season have leveled the playing field. The best teams won’t always rise to the top. There are now other factors to consider with players having to perform two or three times a week over a number of months.

This is after pre-season was skipped entirely by some clubs. For those who participated in the latter rounds of the Champions League and Europa League, there was only one week between the end of the 2019/20 campaign and the start of the 2020/21 season. Coaches have been afforded a lot less time on the training ground to integrate new signings and implement new ideas.

More injuries (23% more over the first nine match days according to Premier Injuries) have been recorded this season, owing to the reduced recovery time granted to players. See how Liverpool have been left without a single senior centre back following injuries to Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk. Plenty of other clubs have suffered too.

Peculiar results have been recorded. Liverpool lost 7-2 to Aston Villa. Leicester City beat Manchester City 5-2 at the Etihad Stadium. PSG lost their opening two games of the season, while Barcelona have won just two of their six away games in La Liga this term. Even Bayern Munich, who looked untouchable last season, have been inconsistent, dropping points to Werder Bremen, RB Leipzig and Union Berlin.

One of the most obvious factors behind these warped results is the lack of fans in soccer stadiums across Europe. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has spoken openly about how an empty Old Trafford has affected his Manchester United team, who have won just two of their seven home league fixtures so far this season.

The natural advantage normally held by home sides is barely there at all. While players are still most familiar with the dimensions of their own playing surface, there has been no real difference between playing home or away in 2020. This has had an impact on league tables across Europe – see how Sheffield United, a team who relied so much on their home atmosphere, are currently rooted to the foot of the Premier League table.

Bundesliga and Ligue 1 clubs were permitted to host reduced numbers of fans in the early phase of the season, but stadiums have been closed once again as Covid-19 numbers have risen over the winter period. Only as the proportion of the population vaccinated starts to increase will fans return to games across the continent.

It’s possible that as a greater sense of normalcy starts to return to life, and as players grow accustomed to the new normal, results and performances will straighten out in the new year. Some Premier League teams, such as Everton and Liverpool, have already welcomed fans, albeit in limited numbers, back to the stands as Covid-19 cases have dropped in their local areas. This could help them lift their home form.

The 2020/21 season, which didn’t get under way until the fall, was always likely to be an unusual one and so it has proved to this point. For once, the big boys aren’t having it all their own way. The odds, which are almost always stacked in their favour, have narrowed in the Covid-19 world.

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